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.
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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.