You’ve seen them everywhere: along the side of the road, in refuse yards, in your neighbor’s garage (or maybe even your own!); and repurposed into all kinds of things like ballasts, floats, storage bins, planters, and of course rain barrels. What could we be talking about?
55-gallon plastic barrels—the blue ones—what else?!
And when I say everywhere, I mean literally all over the globe. Traveling in Bali in 2011, I took this picture (at left): a floating dock constructed with many of them. Well, a not-so-floating dock at low tide, but you get the point! Their versatility is proven, and we are happy to add rainbarrels to the list of blue plastic barrel uses.
A friend sent me a similar photo from her travels in India—and here in the USA on a lazy river weekend, I waved to a floating party on a platform boat made of... you guessed it!
Why are these 55-gallon blue plastic barrels so ubiquitous?
Also known as poly drums, they are the internationally-approved container for shipping liquid food products, world-wide.
They get shipped in bulk to food manufacturers and distributers all over the globe containing edible oils, juices, sauces, vinegars, food flavorings, colorings, you name it. If you can eat it (or drink it!) and somebody needs lots of it, it probably reached its destination in a blue food-grade poly drum.
While the FDA has approved HDPE blue poly-drums for food storage, the US food industry is highly regulated. Once the the poly drums are empty, the barrels themselves enter the waste stream. In other words, they are not re-usable for food transport.
But how could we throw such high-quality, durable, food grade, BPA-free, HDPE plastic containers away? Luckily there are many creative re-uses for the blue poly drums.
BlueBarrel was founded on the principle of keeping as many of these out of the landfill as possible. Their thick, durable side-walls, food-safe plastic, leak-proof and UV resistant qualities make them perfect for harvesting rainwater. Of course there are many other uses for them as well.
We partner with food manufacturers and barrel dealers all over the USA to make these food-grade barrels available to our customers in many different regions. We reached out to one of our participating barrel suppliers, Adam Stephen at B. Stephen Cooperage to give us more detail about the history of the food-grade poly drum.
Here's what Adam had to say:
History of The Polyethylene Drum
The use of barrels as storage containers is not a new concept. Originally, barrels were created from wooden planks and metal bands. These containers were excellent because they didn’t leak when filled with liquid and required no glue or nails to build. The iconic wooden barrel is still used to this day in wine and whiskey making.
In the early 1900s, wooden barrels gave way to a new more durable and easily machined material: Steel. Steel barrels were stronger, safer for use in transport and able to be manufactured on an assembly line with much less labor than wooden barrels. The steel drum is still widely used for liquid storage and transportation to this day.
More advanced technology and manufacturing practices in the late 1960s allowed for another iteration of the barrel to come about: the plastic barrel. Plastic barrels are made from high density, high molecular weight polyethylene (HDPE).
Polyethylene is an excellent material because it is inert and resistant to high or low pH contents. As foodies know, the acidity of food products can be high or low. Some materials, including food products, are caustic and can even break down steel. Have you ever left tinfoil over tomato sauce for an extended period of time? The undesirable result is a case in point: the sauce eats right through metal.
The use of high density polyethylene (HDPE) as opposed to low density (LDPE) allowed for barrels to be created completely from polyethylene, as opposed to using a plastic liner in a steel drum.
How are plastic barrels made?
Plastic drums are manufactured through a process called blow molding. This process allows for various shapes to be created with no seams on the inside. Barrels are still molded in a cylindrical shape to allow for rolling and handling using the same tools as a steel drum. The round shape lacks weak corners (corners are vulnerable to cracking with impact and exposure). The added benefit of a seamless design is that it prevents buildup of bacteria in crevices.
Why are the barrels blue?
Ah, the million dollar question. Polyethylene barrels come in various colors. Some barrels come in a natural semi-transparent color to allow for a filler to see the levels of material in the barrels. However these are not UV resistant and are not suitable for outdoor storage. Black drums are problematic as black pigment is often created by mixing various colors in a recycling process and there is no certainty as to what the previous plastic material was used for. Black barrels are generally not food-grade.
Most polyethylene drums are blue. And thus blue became the industry standard for food storage. The blue pigment in polyethylene drums has a higher UV light resistance than natural and does not show dirt or residue as readily. Blue is the standard food-grade drum.
One of the often forgotten and perhaps most important aspects of polyethylene is how easy it is to recycle and reuse the containers. The inertness and impermeability make them a perfect candidate for reuse or "upcycling."
And this is where BlueBarrel Rainwater Catchment Systems steps in to upcycle food grade polyethylene drums as rain barrels. Their innovative and effective approach for water conservation is sure to lead to a positive impact on the environment – for the tandem benefit of reusing high quality barrels and helping users manage rainwater sustainably on site.