Why Toxic-Waste Drums Are Everywhere (2023)


Created by a globetrotter, the 55-gallon barrel became one of the best-traveled inventions in human history. An Object Lesson.

By Rebecca Altman
Why Toxic-Waste Drums Are Everywhere (1)

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“Toxic Waste,” the label reads in bold letters. A ring of fluorescent green oozes from under the lid. Go ahead, try one, it beckons. How long can you stand it? A full minute? Then rate yourself a “Toxic Head.” Anything less and you’re a “wannabe,” a “crybaby,” a “total wuss.”

I brought this “hazardously sour candy” to class as an end-of-term gag for my students. The candies came packaged in a yellow, three-inch replica of a 55-gallon drum. It had a removable lid, chimes for reinforcement at the top and bottom, and two rolling hoops spaced evenly along its length. The miniature barrel was made from plastic, whereas the thing it was meant to resemble is made from steel, stands just under three feet, and has been given an outsized responsibility: to contain what is placed inside it indefinitely.

* * *

Of all the industries that have relied on the 55-gallon drum, it was the U.S. chemical industry, which came of age during WWII, that introduced the drum into the popular imagination. By mid-century, chemical factories had matured into massive operations spanning acres. They ran continuously, churning out synthetic plastics and other materials unprecedented in their novelty and utility, but also in the quantity of their byproducts. Unregulated production systems were allowed to generate unusable, often dangerous wastes. Along with the landfill and the retention pond, the 55-gallon drum was the waste-management technology of the 20th century.

In all the years I taught community and environmental health at Tufts University, I only sampled the toxic waste candy recently. Regret was immediate. Within moments, I was up and pacing circles around my office, trying to contain my stomach. It made me think of Nellie Bly aboard the Augusta Victoria—hands gripped at the boat rails, rocked green by the Atlantic. Bly was the investigative journalist who in 1889—at the dawning of the Oil Age—went on to circumnavigate the globe and then invent the prototype for the modern steel drum.

Until then, global travel for its own sake and at that speed had been the stuff of fiction. Bly’s race around the world, like other globe-spanning adventures her travels later inspired, had annihilated time and space, wrote The New York Times in 1913. But it also portended other changes of globe-shrinking significance that were already in motion, including the rise of organic chemistry in 19th-century Europe and its transformation over the early decades of the 20th century into an industry whose hazards would become, in time, globe-travelers, too.

After returning from her travels, Bly left journalism, married a man many decades her senior, and took on increasing levels of responsibility at his company, Iron Clad Manufacturing. When he got ill and later died, she ran the company’s factory in Bushwick, Brooklyn, which made milk cans, tubs, and soda fountains, among other metal products. Bly resolved to know every corner of the business, and in particular, “devoted a considerable portion of her time to the perfection and introduction of the steel barrel,” wrote the American Machinist in 1906.

Steel barrels at the time had bowed sides, like wooden wine and ale caskets. But they were leaky and poorly designed for shipping liquids. Bly helped straighten and gird the sides, and changed the industry standard. Even when full, it could be tipped on its side and rolled. “For shipping or storage,” read one advertisement for the new barrels. “No leakage,” the ad promised.

She founded the American Steel Barrel Company and built a factory next door. Standard Oil bought Bly’s barrels, as did other oil, gasoline, and paint companies. The chemical industry, still in its infancy when the first of Bly’s steel drums hit the market, in time would become one of the drum’s biggest users.

Bly’s steel barrels brought in $1 million a year, The New York Times reported in 1911. But her run didn’t last. She lost control of the companies—employee fraud, bankruptcy filing, and disputes dragged on for years in court— just as World War I began and the need for steel drums skyrocketed. World War II only increased demand. By then, a few dozen companies manufactured drums that supplied oil and diesel to war machines. Emptied barrels were repurposed into cook stoves, footings for roughshod buildings, and on Trinidad and Tobago, near the U.S. base there, into magnificent, precisely tuned musical steelpan drums.

As the wartime economy transitioned to peacetime production, the problems posed by chemical wastes grew by the year. During and after the war, an unknown amount of waste was released, landfilled, or else drummed, lidded, stacked, stored, and then buried. Behind the gleam and gloss of new factories grew a stockpile of drums, belying the promise of progress and convenience-without-cost.

* * *

I have never seen a 55-gallon drum up close. Industry was out of sight and largely out of mind, a product of privilege in the post-industrial corner of New Jersey where I grew up.

But before I was born my father worked in the plastics industry, and he told me stories. In the late 1960s, before federal laws regulated how hazardous waste was handled, he witnessed the parade of drums exiting the New Jersey factory where he had worked. At the time, he was a recent college graduate and had been hired by Union Carbide to oversee their polystyrene plant. As he explained to me, in one end of the production line went styrene, butadiene rubber, and sometimes Carbon Black. Out the other end came polystyrene pellets ready to be melted and molded by other companies into telephones, toys or food packaging. Unreacted styrene was pulled off and reused (an attempt at recycling). The leftovers were loaded into drums that unmarked trucks carted to unknown destinations. For decades, he wondered what had happened to them.

He quit in 1971, the same year the scientist Barry Commoner wrote The Closing Circle and called out the ecological folly of linear production systems. “There is no away,” Commoner cautioned. A basic rule of ecology is that everything goes somewhere. The chemical industry flouted the rule when it hauled off wastes by the drumload. Originally, steel drums had been built to move products to market, and while they still served this function, they also became a keystone of a production system that otherwise would have collapsed under its own weight and inefficiencies.

Within a few years, drums were found in communities all across the United States—crushed, emptied, their walls eroded, piled like carcasses with bony ribs jutting from the earth. What the drums contained and what leaked out of them—hazardous waste—became a national issue, and grounds for both a grassroots movement and reforms to strengthen federal policy on the disposal of waste and the restoration of former dumpsites.

Thousands of drums had been emptied or interred at Love Canal, New York. In Kentucky, the environmental historian Michael Egan reminded me, another 20,000 barrels transformed the Stump Gap Creek into the Valley of Drums. More turned up buried in the back of an old egg farm in Toms River, New Jersey. These had originated from the same Union Carbide factory where my father had worked.

Images of the 55-gallon drum pervaded popular media throughout the late 1970s and 1980s. Issues of Newsweek or Time from this period are littered with pictures of 55-gallon drums rusted and stashed, or being moved by men wearing masks and hazmat suits. These visceral, charged images made an icon of the 55-gallon drum and a national issue out of hazardous waste, the sociologist Andrew Szasz has argued. “For a time in American history,” he told me, “they were everywhere,” referring to the photographs as much as the drums—like “a punch to the gut.”

By the 1980s, the 55-gallon drum was synonymous with hazardous waste and the problems posed by late industrialism. The drum signified the long-term consequences posed by short-term fixes and society’s failure to manage a cascading problem introduced by unchecked technologies. Communities organized. A movement galvanized.

The assumption the drums embodied—an illusion of containment—by then had spread to environmental policy, too, which attempted to isolate and segregate a problem that was already out of control.

* * *

Today, Szasz says, the situation is different, though not resolved. And yet, he explains, “I’m not sure the 55-gallon drum is that resonant any more.”

I tell him about the candy in the miniature drum. He lets out a laugh. “I guess images become memes,” he says, “and then they become appropriated and commercialized.” He reminds me of the comics and movies of the 1980s and 1990s that played with similar themes. How many key characters met their end in a vat of radioactive or toxic materials, or inherited superpowers as a result of their exposures? Perhaps the more you see something, the less visible (and less visceral) it becomes.

Management of hazardous waste, particularly the 55-gallon drum, is both a bureaucracy and a business. And this, too, has something to do with the drum’s waning status as an icon. Regulating drums transforms them into necessary objects, when they might otherwise be outmoded artifacts propping up antiquated ways of making things.

Federal regulations define “hazardous waste” as materials that “pose a substantial present or potential hazard to human health or the environment when improperly treated, stored, transported, disposed of, or otherwise managed.” Put differently: the handling makes the hazard, not the materials themselves.

And so little about the content—or quantity—of industrial waste changed as a result of such regulations. In fact, U.S. chemical and allied industries generate more hazardous waste than ever. By 2020, OECD nations (roughly 30 democracies with market economies) are expected to generate 320 pounds of hazardous waste per person each year. Annual production of waste will continue to increase unless and until industries make less of it by using less inherently hazardous materials in the first place—what is referred to as pollution prevention.

When containment is seen to be the problem, the solution is better containers. So now, to carry hazardous materials, the drum needs to be certified by the United Nations—meaning they’ve been dropped, shaken, stacked, and subjected to varying environmental conditions and rated as leak-proof. The drums are then labeled, moved, and stored to exacting specifications. This has become big business.

In 2009, the U.S. drum industry manufactured 21 million new 55-gallon steel drums (and another 15 million plastic ones). Roughly the same number of new steel drums is made each year as old drums are reconditioned, which means there is demand enough among U.S. industries to merit 65 millions drums annually (a figure that doesn’t account for drum production in Europe or Asia). According to industry statistics, at least half of these are used to transport or store regulated hazardous wastes, called “dangerous goods” by the U.N.

* * *

“As long as societies produce this waste,” the sociologist David Pellow writes in Resisting Global Toxics, “it must go somewhere.” And within the United States, as he explains, waste tends to flow onto indigenous communities, communities of color, or communities where wages are well below the cost of living. Hazardous waste facilities have been located disproportionally near already marginalized communities, which the environmental sociologist Robert Bullard argues in Dumping in Dixie spawned new waves of grassroots protest that combined the pursuit of civil rights with environmental health and justice.

Hazardous waste soon became an export. Haulers sought landfills outside the U.S., first looking to Canada and Mexico, then to Africa, Latin America, South Asia, and Eastern Europe. Wastes still travel between the global North and the global South along familiar trade routes, and this happens despite passage of the 1989 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes, an international agreement that works to eliminate the trade in hazardous wastes.

Over the course of the 20th century, with two world wars and the emergence of global markets, the 55-gallon drum has been one of the most well-traveled objects in human history. Even today, more than a century after its invention, the drum remains as integral to chemical manufacturing as it ever was. And yet, as the go-to strategy for waste management, it is a technology that ought to have been abandoned by now, relegated instead to the stuff of kitsch collectibles and candies.

This article appears courtesy of Object Lessons.


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