What is a Recycle Symbol?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A recycle symbol is a symbol which is used on product packaging to indicate that the product is recyclable, or that it is made from recycled materials. The concept of a universal recycling symbol was popularized in the 1970s, when environmentalists wanted to promote recycling and make it easier for consumers to recycle paper, glass, and plastic. The most common form of the recycling circle involves a design with arrows which appear to be chasing each other in an endless loop, and variations often riff on the theme of arrows, reflecting the idea that recycling contributes to a circular cycle, rather than being a closed system.

The recycling logo uses the trefoil symbol.
The recycling logo uses the trefoil symbol.

One of the main reasons to use the recycling symbol on product packaging is to alert consumers to the fact that it can be recycled, and to encourage people to recycle. The idea is that when consumers see the universal symbol, they will feel guilty about throwing a product in the garbage. The symbol can also be matched with waste disposal containers which are printed with a recycle symbol, allowing people to dispose of recycled goods properly even if they cannot read, or are not familiar with the recycling process.

Plastic containers often come with a numeric symbol that makes them easier to sort when recycling.
Plastic containers often come with a numeric symbol that makes them easier to sort when recycling.

Plastics are often printed with a resin identification code which is used inside the recycle symbol. This numerical code indicates the material used to make the plastic, allowing plastics to be sorted for recycling. Consumers also use these codes to gather information about the plastics they use, as some codes have specific uses or safety precautions. These codes are universal, making global plastic handling much easier.

Companies also display the recycling symbol on products made with recycled material to promote their products while raising awareness about the practice of recycling. Some consumers actively seek out recycled products, because they believe that they are more environmentally friendly, so they may be drawn to products with a recycle symbol. Others may take note of the symbol and internalize the message that recycling is a good idea.

When products are made with recycled material, the packaging must indicate the percentage of recycled products involved, as this information usually matters to consumers. Some companies, for example, use a minimal amount of recycled goods in their products, while others use a great deal, and there is a big difference between paper with five percent post-consumer content and paper with a higher percentage. A different recycle symbol tends to be used to indicate the presence of recycled content, so that consumers do not become confused.

The use of recycle symbols on items such as cans and bottles became popular internationally in the 1970s.
The use of recycle symbols on items such as cans and bottles became popular internationally in the 1970s.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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