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Happy Birthday, RCRA

Thirty years ago, on OCT. 21, President Gerald Ford signed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act into law. Known to garbage pros as “RCRA”, the legislation fundamentally changed how we managed solid waste.

RCRA wasn't America's first solid waste law. That distinction belongs to 1965's Solid Waste and Disposal Act. That modest law created an Office of Solid Waste in the U.S. Public Health Service, gave that office money for research and development projects, and created a technical assistance program. The law's real importance was to make it clear that taking care of trash is, first and foremost, a public health necessity.

When EPA was created in 1970, it took over responsibility for solid waste management. For the next six years, EPA had a small office that continued the work started by the Public Health Service. The Office of Solid Waste Management Programs (fondly known as “o-swamp”) also expanded into resource recovery and actively promoted waste-to-energy and recycling.

RCRA greatly increased EPA's solid waste responsibilities. Subtitles C and D were the heart of the new law. Subtitle C required the agency to write regulations to manage hazardous wastes. Subtitle D outlawed open dumps and made the states responsible for implementing and administering the non-hazardous waste programs. EPA's primary role was to enforce the law when necessary.

Because hazardous waste posed a greater environmental threat than mere garbage, the agency concentrated first on the Subtitle C program. Those regulations were promulgated five years after RCRA was signed. EPA's attention also was diverted away from trash and recycling by the discovery of toxic waste at Love Canal and the creation of the Superfund program. In 1991, a decade after the hazardous waste regulations went into effect, EPA finally released the Subtitle D landfill criteria.

Even though RCRA's title uses the words “resource conservation and recovery,” the law is primarily about protecting land resources from contamination by hazardous and solid waste disposal. EPA and other federal agencies had just a few recycling-related requirements. In fact, the word “recycling” only appears several times in RCRA.

Over time, EPA scaled down its resource recovery programs. For a few years, the agency continued to promote waste-to-energy and recycling through workshops and “how-to” manuals. In 1981, the resource recovery program was eliminated. RCRA required EPA to issue recycled content product procurement guidelines, but the agency did nothing until the mid-'80s when it lost a lawsuit filed by the National Recycling Coalition.

RCRA was further amended in the '80s to end the land disposal of hazardous waste and to regulate underground storage tanks. Only when the garbage barge set sail in March of 1987 did EPA decide it needed to get back into recycling. Since then the agency has actively promoted recycling.

What does the future hold in store for RCRA? Congress has little interest in garbage unless the issue is trash going across state or international borders. Fortunately, the states took the initiative to pass recycling legislation after the garbage barge sailed, and they are leading the way in e-waste legislation.

But the fact remains — we've made giant strides in managing trash over the last 30 years. That alone is cause for celebrating.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: [email protected].

The columnist is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.