AS LEARNED commissions debate whether to declare a new human-dominated era of geological time – the Anthropocene – we are already making facts on and under the ground. Since plastics were widely introduced in the 1950s, we have dumped an estimated 4.9 billion tonnes into the environment. Most goes to landfill for future generations to unearth. But it is marine waste that has spurred public desire for action. Images from the BBC documentary Blue Planet II of marine wildlife snared by plastics are a visceral indictment of our throwaway culture.
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.