Chasing Arrows Can Confuse

The chasing-arrows recycling symbol has long been viewed as synonymous with positive environmental action. But does it really symbolize “green” actions? It helps to understand the history of this famous logo and what it means today.

During the lead-up to the first Earth Day in 1970, the Container Corporation of America, a recycled cardboard manufacturer, sponsored a nationwide contest to create a symbol to represent the process of recycling paper. A panel of judges evaluated over 500 entries and eventually chose the design by Gary Dean Anderson, a University of Southern California engineering student.

Anderson’s winning design was a series of three chasing arrows in a continuous loop both finite and infinite (much like the famous Mobius strip). This loop symbolized the idea of discarded material, like paper, being put back into useful production, creating a circular system of producing, using, and recycling. As recycling grew and expanded, the symbol served as a visual cue in the following decades, crossing age and language barriers.

Arrows Shift to Plastic
Even though the chasing-arrows recycling logo was originally created by and for the paper industry, the logo has become more well-known on plastic items as a chemical (resin) identifier, not necessarily an environmental  symbol. Not all plastics are made from the same components and resins, so they cannot be mixed together in remanufacturing. The different numbers help recyclers and processors keep each type of plastic separate. Some resins are more widely used and thus more recyclable than others.

Today, the logo is one of the most recognized symbols in the world. While many materials are technically recyclable, only a small handful of products and packages are actually accepted in local recycling programs, in spite of some manufacturers’ recyclability claims. Product manufacturers and their marketing departments rely on the recycling symbol to represent their commitment to environmental responsibility, even when the product or package many not be truly recyclable, or at least may not be recycled in your local community.

Always check with your local solid waste management district or recycling collector to find the list of materials that can be recycled in your community’s program. If you are still unsure, leave that material out of your recycling bin and place it in the waste container instead.

Credit: Daria Vasenina | iStock | Getty Images Plus

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