Facts on Recycling Symbols

The universal recycling symbols for recycling are actually Mobius loops comprising three changing arrows used to form a triangle, such as the one seen below.

recycling symbol for recyclable items 1

History of the symbol

This Mobius loop was designed by Gary Anderson, a 23-year-old-college student in the late 1960s to 1970.

The design was the winning entry for an art contest sponsored by a Chicago-based recycled paperboard company to raise environmental awareness amongst high schools and colleges across the country.

Read more on the history of recycling.

What the symbol means

The triangle in the recycling sign represents the "Reduce Reuse Recycle" Waste Hierarchy.

This hierarchy in turn illustrates the most effective plan of action to reduce waste and conserve natural resources, through “reducing” first, then “reusing” and finally, “recycling”.

The three arrows in the symbol represent the three main stages in recycling.

The first arrow represents the first stage of recycling – collection and sorting the various recyclable materials, to prepare them for processing.

The second arrow represents the second stage of recycling – processing the recyclable materials into raw materials and using these raw materials for manufacturing new products.

The third arrow in the symbol represents the third and final stage of the recycling process – the sale and purchase of products created using recycled materials.

The three arrows form a closed loop, illustrating how the three main stages contribute and reinforce one another in the recycling process. The closed loop also means that should any of the stages in the recycling process be ineffective, the sustainability of the entire recycling effort would be affected.

Types of recycling symbols on products

The universal recycling symbol is not a trademark, and its use is not regulated. In other words, anyone is free to use the recycling symbol, although local laws may restrict its use in product labeling.

There are many variations to the universal recycling symbol. However, there are however, two main categories of recycling symbols.

One category is reserved for products which can be recycled after consumption.

This category of recycling symbols usually comprises the Mobius loop, either white with black outline or solid black, such as the two symbols below. In fact, these two symbols are often used interchangeably.

recycling symbol for recyclable items 1

recycling symbol for recyclable items 2

The second category is reserved for products that contain recycled materials, or make use of recycled materials in the manufacturing process.

This category of symbols usually comprises the Mobius loop inside a circle, either black on white or white on black, such as the two symbols below.

recycling symbol for recycled item 1

recycling symbol for recycled item 3

The white-on-black version is often used for 100% recycled materials, while the black-on-white version is often for products containing both recycled and non-recycled materials.

For convenience, some manufacturers may also include a label, such as “This product can be recycled” or “This product is made of recycled materials”, along with the symbol for recycling.

When a percentage is indicated within the symbol, such as the symbols below, it means that the particular percentage of the product has been made from recycled materials.

recycling symbol for recycled item 2

Thus, when making purchases, do look out for these symbols for recycling as well as the manufacturer’s claims.

Symbols for specific materials

Today, there are many different types of materials that can be recycled, as well as be processed and made into new products.

To help consumers identify these recycle products, symbols specific to certain materials were also created.

One example is paper.

Since the paper industry has one of the highest demand and supply of recycled products, it was quick to introduce some basic and easy-to-understand recycled symbols for consumers.

For example, the recycling sign below has been patented as a registered trademark by the Recycled Paperboard Alliance. It means that the paper product is made of 100% recycled paperboard.

100% recycled paperboard

Another example of a symbol for paper recycling can be seen below. It is a corrugated recyclables symbol. This symbol means that the corrugated material can (and should) be recycled after use.

corrugated recyclables symbol

Glass is another material that can be recycled and made into new glass products.

Most glass containers are recyclable. Hence, this symbol below merely reminds consumers to recycle their glass products.

symbol for glass recycling

Besides paper and glass, some types of plastic can also be recycled.

The various categories of plastics can be identified by the numbering in the centre of the recycling symbol triangle.

Read more about the different types of plastic recycling codes and what they mean.

Why bother about symbols for recycling?

These symbols for recycling matter because they help you and I identify the products that can be recycled, so that we will send them for recycling rather than throwing them out in the garbage.

The recycling codes also help us identify the products that contain recycled materials, such that we can make it a point to purchase these eco-friendly products to complete the recycling loop.

Once you become familiar with these symbols and codes, identifying these green products will become a breeze. It will become your second nature.

In turn, as more and more of us purchase eco-friendly products, more manufacturers will be more driven to participate equally in recycling and green efforts. All these will ultimately contribute in a big way to the health and wealth of our earth and human race.


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