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The Correct Recycling Symbol

I was just going through my Google Reader feeds, and stumbled upon a new concept for the Coca-Cola company in redesigning their soda bottles. The idea is rather ingenious. The bottles are reshaped to save on packing space, thus reducing the carbon footprint needed to ship the same amount of containers. They also feature a collapsible design, encouraging recycling, or at least minimizing land fill should they be thrown away. Overall, it's a total win, and if I was a soda drinker, I would become a Coca-Cola fan. If they implemented the concept, that is.

However, the designer of the concept missed the boat on a crucial icon that represents recycling on an international scale. Take a look at this picture:

See the recycling symbol in the lower right-hand corner? Yeah. It's wrong. I'll explain.

Gary Anderson, in 1970, designed a symbol for a contest held by Container Corporation of America, to raise awareness for recycling consumable products for Earth Day. His design won, and has since been an international symbol representing recycling. However, here's something that many people don't know: the symbol was deliberately designed to be a Möbius band.

I'll chop out the symbol that the designer created and we can compare it to the one Gary Anderson created, so you can see what I'm talking about. The Coca-Cola symbol is on the left, with Gary Anderson's creation on the right:

Notice, this recycling symbol is not a Mobius strip, which is not what the designer had in mind. Notice that this symbol properly shows that the surface is a Mobius band.

Notice, that with the symbol the designer created, it's just the same arrow three times, only rotated. However, this means that the strip is not a Möbius band that Gary Anderson initially intended. As you can see, comparing the two symbols side by side, the upper arrows and lower right arrows are the same. The difference lies in the lower left arrow. The "half-twist", as it would be called, in Gary Anderson's creation creates the Möbius band.

If a Möbius band is new to you, take a strip of paper where its length is substantially longer than it's width, maybe 10-times as long. If you were to bring the two ends together, without putting any twists in the paper, you would create a loop with two sides. Now, instead, put a half-twist in one end, and bring the ends together again. You have now just created a one-sided surface, called a Möbius strip. If you were to color with a red crayon on one "side" of the strip, and color with a blue crayon on the other, and follow the strip, you'll find that the red crayon will meet the blue line, and the blue crayon will meet the red line. This surface only has one side and one edge.

If you're having trouble visualizing this, consider the following video to help you see the one-sided nature of the strip (flash ahead):

Gary Anderson chose the Möbius band for his symbol, due to the nature of recycling. Take a "side" of the strip. Call that side "creation" of the consumable product. Take the other side to be the "recycling" of the product. Due to the nature of the Möbius strip, as you move along the strip (call that "time") starting with the creation, you will eventually reach the opposite side, when you labeled recycling. In other words, a Möbius strip was chosen, as with recycling, everything goes back into itself.

Now, consider the logo the designer made. That band is ambiguous on whether or not has two distinct sides. If it indeed has one side, then it has 1.5 twists in the loop, which does not have the same topological properties as the Möbius band. If it has two sides, by adding an odd third dimension, then the "creation" of their product never gets recycled, according to their symbol. It just stays as it is. It will never reach the "recycling" side of the strip. As a result, the product won't get recycled and reused.

The designer isn't the only person to produce this failure. After all, it's subtle enough that I doubt many people are aware of it. However, it drives me nuts. Being a topologist (a mathematician studying topology (topology is NOT topography)), I notice these things. Take a look at this Google Image Search results, to see how many other people the world-round make the same mistake.

There's a rule in design that every designer should be familiar with. The rule is that the designer should deeply study what they are about to create before they create. For example, if you were creating a logo for a company, and wanted that logo to represent a rubber stamp, you should better spend a great deal of time studying stamps in person, learning everything about them, before creating your logo. If your logo involves a tire, take a lot of time to study tires. Et cetera. The reason being, when your logo goes public, if you haven't deeply scrutinized it, to make the logo accurately convey what it's trying to convey, the public will scrutinize it, and guess who will be wishing they spent a little more time in the research area?

Now, this designer may, or may not have taken design classes, or not have any professional experience in design. I know not. However, the images produced are quite professional looking, so I'm guessing there is some experience to be expected. Regardless, if the concept is run with Coca-Cola, I would hope that the marketing or advertising department picks up on the symbol error, and corrects it before release.

</rant>

{ 5 } Comments

  1. Dennis Ranke using Firefox 3.6.2 on Windows XP | April 1, 2010 at 1:54 am | Permalink

    Isn't the wrong logo one sided, too? As far as I can see it actually twists 1.5 times.

  2. Abaris using GNU IceCat 3.6.2 on GNU/Linux 64 bits | April 1, 2010 at 2:14 am | Permalink

    Indeed, the "wrong" logo is a Moebius band, too. It is one sided. Just imagine yourself on some fixed starting point, running along the arrows. You will traverse both "sides" before reaching the starting point again, meaning that there really is only one side to it.

  3. Steffen Michalek using Firefox 3.5.8 on Ubuntu | April 1, 2010 at 2:45 am | Permalink

    Hi! Thanks for the stimulation to look carefully at the meaning and shape of the recycling logo! However, since both, the original and the wrong logo contain an odd number of half-twists, both are Möbius-bands. So, the last half-twist does not cause the Möbius-characteristic, but it neutrals one of the preceeding half-twists. That's why the result is only half-twisted rather than one-and-a-half-twisted.

    But anyway ... this was a really funny and appealing topic for 1st of april to let people puzzle about topology. Me, personally, needed to take a stip of paper (one side marked by a long line along the paper) to be confident in my view to see both as Möbius-bands. - Thanks! :-)

  4. alphakamp using Google Chrome 5.0.362.0 on GNU/Linux | April 1, 2010 at 5:27 am | Permalink

    Some people will recycle, some people wont... regardless of a symbol. Neat that you caught this though.

  5. Gavin using Firefox 3.6.13 on Windows Vista | February 24, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    This struck me a few weeks ago. I struggled to translate the bastardization of the recycling logo on a trashcan before realizing that the shape was impossible in three dimensions. Either the manufacturers have discovered a method of folding space or something is intrinsically wrong. Great post! Maybe some young engineer will fix it one day...

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