Recently, I attended a retirement party for Truett DeGeare, who was leaving EPA after a career that began in the original federal solid waste management program in 1968. The party was an opportunity to honor Truett for his many contributions to waste management over the years. It was also a chance to look back and reminisce over many of the early waste management programs and realize how much has changed.
When Truett began his career, open dumps were the norm, waste incineration did not include energy recovery and San Francisco had America’s sole curbside recycling program (and it only collected newspapers). This was the pre-EPA America in which the Cuyahoga River caught on fire and dumps shimmered at night from the movement of rats scurrying across the surface.
At that time, the Solid Wastes Program was part of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare’s Bureau of Disease Prevention. The Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965 treated waste management as a public health problem with an additional emphasis on training local governments in efficient and effective management practices.
Among their many activities, those pre-EPA solid wasters monitored emissions at incinerators, visited military airfields to study aviation hazards caused by birds at nearby landfills, developed “heuristic routing” to ensure that garbage trucks would drive the shortest possible routes, and created “Mission 5000”, a campaign to close 5,000 open dumps. Providing technical assistance to solid waste programs throughout the country was a core part of their activities.
When EPA was created in 1970, it continued these projects, seeing many of them to their final implementation. The agency also added resource conservation to the mix. The Resource Recovery Division of the Office of Solid Waste Management Programs (lovingly known as “oswamp”) promoted recycling and waste-to-energy. The agency funded several recycling demonstration projects, including America’s first modern, multi-material curbside collection programs in Marblehead and Somerville, Mass. EPA held workshops across the country on resource recovery and source separation and published many studies of successful projects. During the ’70s, the agency also issued land disposal and thermal processing guidelines and worked with many communities to improve their waste management programs.
In 1981, EPA’s municipal solid waste activities came to a sudden halt. Hazardous waste management and the Superfund programs were ascendant. The new administration did not believe that the federal government should be involved in garbage and recycling. Those activities remained shut down until the 1987 voyage of the garbage barge reminded America that we hadn’t solved all of our waste problems.
Since then, EPA has led a vigorous resource conservation effort. Even the words “resource recovery” were recently resurrected in the newly-named Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery. EPA didn’t forget garbage, as it issued the Subtitle D landfill guidelines in 1991 and established the Landfill Methane Outreach Program, a highly successful effort to promote the recovery of landfill gas as an energy source.
I attended Truett’s retirement party because he had the good fortune to survive managing me in the mid-’80s. At his party, I saw many former agency colleagues, some retired, some still working. I don’t think that any of us regretted working for the agency. EPA’s legal responsibilities make it America’s most controversial agency. It isn’t perfect. But then as now, we are lucky to have people like Truett working to give America a healthier environment.