history of recycling

History of recycling and its symbol


Recycling, an essential practice for environmental sustainability, has deep roots that are intertwined with the evolution of society and technology.

Often taken for granted, the process of transforming waste into resources has been, and continues to be, a fundamental pillar for reducing environmental impact and conserving natural resources.

In this article, we will explore the history of recycling, from the first rudimentary forms of reusing materials to modern recovery and transformation technologies.

We will also discover the origin and meaning of the universal symbol of recycling, those three arrows that rotate in an infinite cycle, representing not only a process, but a philosophy of sustainable life.

A journey through time to understand how recycling has become an integral part of our culture and our commitment to a greener future.

What is the purpose and importance of recycling symbols?

The purpose of recycling symbols is to help consumers identify which products can be recycled and how to recycle them.

The symbols provide clear instructions on the type of materials that can be recycled and the steps to take to dispose of them correctly.

This helps ensure that products are managed in an environmentally responsible manner, reducing the amount of waste that ends up in landfill.

The symbols alert consumers to potential risks associated with certain materials and remind them to recycle responsibly.

It’s important to note that some items may require specific recycling instructions, so it’s always best to check with your municipality or waste management company for further information.

Recycling symbols are important because they help to:

  • Identify recyclable products.
  • Provide clear instructions on how to recycle.
  • Ensure correct and safe disposal.
  • Reduce the amount of waste in landfill.
  • Report potential risks of materials.
  • Promote environmental awareness .

The recycling and separate waste collection symbols allow you to recognize the various materials and understand how to dispose of waste correctly.

Knowing the meaning of the symbols helps to better manage the different types of materials.

History of Recycling


  • Ancient civilizations recycled out of necessity, due to the scarcity of resources
  • Casting of bronze and other metals for reuse (Greece and Rome)
  • Use of clay amphorae for transport and conservation (Greece and Rome)

Middle Ages:

  • Resource scarcity continues to motivate recycling
  • Collecting rags for paper production (from the 12th century)
  • Invention of the paper deinking process (18th century)

Nineteenth century:

  • Industrialization leads to increased waste and a “throwaway” mentality.
  • The growing quantity of waste makes more structured management necessary, such as the introduction of sewage systems and urban cleaning services.

20th century:

  • World wars encourage recycling to conserve resources.
  • The post-war economic boom leads to a further increase in waste, but environmental awareness is also growing.
  • Recycling campaigns in the United States and Great Britain during the Second World War, development of standard return bottles in Germany (1952).


  • April 22: The first Earth Day is celebrated.
  • The Container Corporation of America (CCA), a company producing recycled cardboard, is holding a competition for art and design students to raise public awareness of environmental issues.
  • Gary Anderson , a 23-year-old student at the University of Southern California, won the contest with what we now know as the universal recycling symbol (the Möbius Loop ). The original design featured the arrows arranged in a triangle with the tips pointing upwards, rotated 60° from the current version.

70s – 80s:

  • The recycling symbol begins to spread slowly, initially with little visibility.
  • The American Paper Institute offers four variations of the symbol for different uses: one simple, to indicate recyclability, and three with the symbol inside a circle to indicate the percentage of recycled material present in a product.
  • It was towards the end of the 1980s that plastic  recycling transformed into a real industry capable of sustaining itself and giving life to a virtuous recycling supply chain.


  • The Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) develops the resin identification code, based on the recycling symbol but with simplified arrows, to indicate the type of plastic used in a product.


  • The recycling symbol is becoming increasingly recognizable internationally.
  • Different variations of the symbol spread, with the arrows folding in on themselves rather than overlapping as in the original design.
  • The “Green Dot” symbol was born to indicate that the manufacturing company has contributed financially to the recovery and recycling of packaging in Europe.
  • The “Tidy Man” symbol is spreading to encourage correct waste disposal and combat abandonment in the environment.

2000s – Today:

  • The recycling symbol is now omnipresent and recognized globally.
  • Unicode, the international character encoding standard, includes the recycling symbol and some of its variants.
  • An ISO/IEC working group documents the different variations of the recycling symbol and proposes adding others to the Unicode standard.
  • As 3D printing becomes more widespread, further expansion of resin identification codes is proposed to include new materials.

Symbols mentioned:

  • Möbius cycle: Universal symbol of recycling, consisting of three arrows chasing each other arranged to form a Möbius strip.
  • Green Dot: Symbol used in Europe to indicate that the manufacturing company has contributed financially to the recovery and recycling of packaging.
  • Tidy Man: Symbol depicting a little man throwing rubbish into a bin, used to encourage correct waste disposal.
  • Resin Identification Code (RIC): System of classification of plastic materials based on the recycling symbol, with a number inside to identify the type of plastic.
  • Crossed-out container: indicates that the product cannot be thrown into normal waste, but must be disposed of in collection centres.
  • Hexagon with acronym: indicates the material of which the liquid containers are made.
  • Triangle with arrows and number: indicates the type of plastic.


The history of recycling and its symbol is a fascinating journey through the evolution of environmental awareness and sustainable practices.

From the first forms of reuse of materials to the global adoption of the recycling symbol, this path reflects society’s growing commitment to resource conservation and waste reduction.

The recycling symbol, with its three arrows chasing each other in an infinite cycle, does not just represent a process, but a fundamental principle of environmental responsibility.

Every time we choose to recycle, we contribute to a more sustainable future, honoring a history that teaches us the importance of protecting our planet.

Continuing on this path is not only a duty, but an opportunity to leave a better world for future generations.

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