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Chasing Arrows: A Quick History and What They Mean

Updated: May 29, 2022

Originally intended just for paper, the recycling symbol now represents all things environmental and green.

Every day I spend a few minutes scrutinizing plastic items for the recycling symbol, also called the Chasing Arrows symbol. I’ve been doing this for years, and it seems like I should be able to sort plastics without looking for each item's "number." Water bottles, yogurt containers, and milk jugs are a no-brainer, whereas other kinds of plastics aren't. There are just too many plastics to keep straight.

Fortunately, the Chasing Arrows symbol has taken the guesswork from recycling plastic. Have you ever wondered how the arrows came about?

Designed by a college student

A quick search will reveal that the Society of Plastics Institute (SPI) developed the symbol in 1988. This is only half true. The other half goes back to 1970. US consumers had been recycling in fits and starts after World War II. But with no regulations in place, industries and states quarreled, and consumers became confused.

The arrows became so ubiquitous the CCA couldn’t copyright them, so it made them public domain.

In 1970 environmentalists and recycling proponents teamed with the Container Corporation of America (CCA), a paperboard manufacturer. In need of a design for its recycled paper products, the CCA held a national contest that received several hundred submissions.

The winner was Gary Dean Anderson, a 23-year-old architecture student who credited M.C. Escher’s Mobius strip as inspiring him. His reward: a $2,500 scholarship. Such a small sum for the movement it came to represent. Encouraged by the design’s success, the CCA shared it with other companies. The arrows became so ubiquitous the CCA couldn’t copyright them, so it made them public domain.

In 1988 the SPI established a system of codes for sorting plastics and began using the iconic arrows as its symbol. Affectionately called the Resin Identification Code, the three-arrow character featured a number between 1 and 7 to identify the plastic material. The design received a minor facelift in 2013, but for the most part, the Chasing Arrows have changed little from Anderson’s original design.

What do the numbers mean?

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET/PETE) Found in: bottles for water, soft and sports drinks, and condiments

  1. High-density polyethylene (HDPE) Found in: bottles for milk, juice, detergents, and shampoos; plastic bags; cereal box liners

  2. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) Found in: waterpipes, shrink wrap, plastic gloves, children’s toys, and blister packs

  3. Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) Found in: bags for bread, newspapers, produce, and garbage; beverage cups; squeezable plastic

  4. Polypropylene (PP) Found in: yogurt and food containers; furniture; rope; luggage; clothing insulation

  5. Polystyrene (PS) Found in: foam cups, plates, bowls, trays, and packing peanuts

  6. Other – fiberglass, plexiglass, and nylon Found in: baby bottles, sunglasses, and iPod cases

Typically, #1 and #2 are the easiest to recycle, while #3 to #7 are the hardest. Why is this? Plastic is designed for specific uses, so manufacturers mix additives and colorants, complicating recycling. For example, a water bottle is intended to be used once, whereas the plastic dashboard in a car is expected to last for years.

Fortunately, interest in recycling high-numbered plastics is growing. With state and local governments and consumers requiring manufacturers to be more sustainable and open about their processes, manufacturers are looking for solutions. One method that’s gaining steam is chemical recycling. This entails heating or chemically treating waste plastic to break it down to its raw materials. Once reduced, they are processed to make more plastic products.

With chemical recycling, plastics are kept out of landfills and instead reused, sometimes indefinitely. This is called a circular economy, something I’ll write about in a future post. Stay tuned!

Further reading

A Brief History of Recycling.” Northeast Recycling Council, November 19, 2019.

Deer, Ryan. “How to Read Plastic Recycling Symbols.” RoadRunner Recycling, February 10, 2021.

Farmer, Tyler. “A Look at the History of the Universal Recycling Symbol.” Recycle Nation, May 4, 2011.

Krosofsky, Andrew. “Exploring the Unusual History of the Recycling Symbol.” Greenmatters, December 4, 2020.

Professor Plastics. “What Does That Chasing Arrow Symbol on Plastics Mean?” Plastics Make it Possible, November 2, 2017.

Sanchez, Rudy. “The History of Plastic: The Theft of the Recycling Symbol.” Dieline, April 22, 2020.

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