In 1970, Gary Anderson, a 23-year-old architecture student at the University of Southern California, entered a design contest sponsored by a box manufacturer. The contest aimed to create a logo to promote the recycling of paper. Anderson’s design, featuring three folded-over arrow strips forming an endless triangle, won the competition. Little did he know that his creation would soon become an international symbol for repurposing waste materials.
However, it wasn’t until the end of the 1970s that Anderson saw his design take on a life of its own. Walking along a sidewalk in Amsterdam, he stumbled upon a neighborhood square with recycling bins stamped with his logo. Since then, manufacturers have used the logo on various products, expanding its reach beyond just paper items like cereal boxes and shopping bags.
Gary Anderson, now 75 and a retired architecture and planning consultant, admitted that the symbol and he had different lives for a time. However, he developed a pride of authorship as he saw his creation become a ubiquitous symbol of recycling. Despite this, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which oversees recycling efforts in the United States, believes that the “chasing-arrows” logo should be retired from plastics that are difficult to recycle.
The EPA requested the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to replace the arrows logo on plastics with solid triangles. The agency hopes that this change will eliminate confusion around labeling and alleviate the burden on recycling facilities that struggle with processing plastic items they cannot recycle. Currently, consumers tend to see the chasing-arrows logo as a sign that an item can be recycled. However, it becomes deceptive and misleading when applied to plastics that are economically unviable to recycle, especially those numbered 3 to 7.
Not all plastics with resin identification codes can be recycled in the United States, according to Jennie Romer, a deputy assistant administrator at the EPA. Plastics numbered 3 to 7 are particularly challenging to recycle. Given this reality, the EPA believes that it is time to retire the chasing-arrows logo from such plastics. Still, Gary Anderson hoped that his logo could retain its status as a symbol of recycling for other purposes.
Over a thousand environmental groups and individuals, including the EPA, have sent comments to the FTC, advocating for changes to labeling regulations. They argue that the misuse of the recycling logo on plastic products is exacerbating the plastic waste crisis. A Greenpeace study revealed that only 5 to 6 percent of plastic in the United States was recycled in 2021, down from 9.5 percent in 2014. Most plastic packaging is economically impractical to recycle due to the costs associated with collection and sorting.
The F.T.C. has been seeking public input on changes to environmental advertising and labeling regulations to address the intensifying plastic waste problem. China’s policy shift in 2018, no longer accepting low-grade plastic imports, has further exacerbated the issue. The labels on plastic items have caused harm as they mislead consumers into thinking that recycling is a solution. In reality, most of these items end up overwhelming recycling centers, diverting resources from more easily recyclable materials like paper, aluminum, and glass.
While the EPA is not calling for the complete abandonment of Anderson’s logo, Deputy Assistant Administrator Jennie Romer stated that companies using the symbol should have to meet a high bar. Currently, for a product to be advertised as recyclable, at least 60 percent of the company’s customers must have access to recycling facilities capable of processing it. The EPA has urged the FTC to raise this threshold even higher.
Though Anderson understands the concerns regarding the misuse of his logo, he remains skeptical about replacing it with alternatives. He believes that good graphics should be simple yet effective, conveying concepts without the need for explanations. With the ongoing discussions and growing awareness of the plastic waste crisis, the fate of the chasing-arrows logo hangs in the balance.