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The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) is the public law in the United States that gives the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to control hazardous and non-hazardous solid waste from cradle-to-grave. Subtitle D of the Act focuses on non-hazardous solid waste requirements, and Subtitle C focuses on hazardous solid waste requirements. The RCRA refers to the combination of the first federal solid waste statues and the amendments. Congress has amended the RCRA several times throughout history.
Hazardous waste is waste which, because of certain characteristics, may cause a substantial or potential hazard to human health or the environment when improperly treated, stored, transported, or disposed of.
The RCRA allows the EPA to manage the generation, treatment, transportation, storage, and disposal of hazardous waste. The EPA has put regulations, guidance, programs, and policies in place to effectively manage this waste. The regulations specifically allow the EPA to implement legally enforced requirements for waste management. For example, the EPA sets minimum technical standards on how waste disposal facilities should be operated and then it is the duty of the states to ensure compliance with EPA regulations.
The timeline below details the evolution of the RCRA, from early regulations to what the act looks like today.
In the 1950s, the amount of municipal and industrial waste that individuals in the U.S. created increased substantially. During this time, the federal government did not have the jurisdiction to regulate waste, as it was the responsibility of the state and local government. This resulted in regulations across the country being inconsistent and thus ineffective.
By 1965, it was obvious that current regulations were not working, which resulted in the passing of the 1965 Solid Waste Disposal Act (SWDA). The SWDA was the first statue that specifically aimed to improve solid waste disposal methods. This Act did not focus on managing solid waste from cradle-to-grave, but instead established a framework for states to improve the disposal of solid waste and set minimum requirements for landfills. However, this was deemed insufficient by Congress in effectively managing the nation’s waste.
The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act was passed by Congress in 1976 to in response to issues that the country faced in regulating the growing volume of municipal and industrial waste. It was an amendment to the 1965 Solid Waste Disposal Act. The RCRA was the first instance in which the generation, treatment, transportation, storage, and disposal of hazardous waste came fully under federal jurisdiction. The RCRA set national goals for:
In 1984, Congress made Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments (HSWA) to the RCRA to strengthen it. These amendments included phasing out the land disposal of hazardous waste, corrective action for the release of hazardous waste, and waste minimization. Waste minimization refers to the use of waste reduction methods at the source and the introduction of environmentally conscious recycling methods when disposing waste. The HSWA was effective in bringing about the creation of the Land Disposal Restrictions Program, the inception of RCRA Corrective Action requirements, the establishment of permitting deadlines for hazardous waste facilities, and the regulation of small-quality generators of hazardous waste.
In 1992, the Federal Facility Compliance Act strengthened the enforcement of the RCRA at federal facilities. This was in response to the fact that under the RCRA, federal facilities still disregarded environmental laws. This Act stated that federal facilities must be compliant with federal and state hazardous waste laws, it waived federal sovereign immunity under those laws, and it imposed fines and penalties. In 1996 the Land Disposal Program Flexibility Act (LDPFA) amended the RCRA to provide regulatory flexibility for the land disposal of some types of waste. The LDPFA exempted solid waste that identified as no longer exhibiting a hazardous characteristic from land disposal restrictions.
Today, the EPA prioritizes developing the hazardous and municipal solid waste programs and encouraging the commitment of society to recycle and reduce pollution. The RCRA addresses continuing challenges such as new disposal sites, new waste streams, recently developed products and chemicals, and the increased demand on natural resources that population growth has.
Throughout the years, the RCRA has protected communities and the environment from the threat of hazardous waste, helped to restore and clean up land and water, conserved natural resources, and empowered society to participate in decision-making processes through incentives and opportunities.
More specifically, the RCRA has developed an effective system to manage hazardous waste from cradle-to-grave. It has created the framework that has allowed states to implement effective municipal solid waste and non-hazardous waste management programs. RCRA programs have successfully managed 2.96 billion tons of solid industrial waste, provided $97.3 million in grant funding to help states implement authorized hazardous waste programs, and worked to address more than 3700 existing contaminated facilities.
Additionally, the RCRA has restored 18 million acres of contaminated lands through the RCRA Corrective Action Program. It also made the cost of cleaning up contaminated facilities fall on the facilities that pollute instead of taxpayers. It has increased the municipal solid waste recycling/composting rate from less than 7% to about 32%. The RCRA has also drastically improved the nation’s recycling infrastructure. Its Sustainable Materials Management approach has challenged society to change the way they think about waste and to instead view it as a valuable commodity that can be used to create new products. Finally, it has improved public transparency on the management of waste through technology and information so that they can help to make informed decisions on waste management activities.
The Future of the RCRA
The EPA’s report on the RCRA’s Critical Mission and Path Forward states that the vision for the RCRA program is to continue to safeguard communities and the environment; mitigate and clean up contamination; champion sustainable lifecycle waste and material management approaches; and promote economic development and community wellbeing.
Support for the Manufacturing Sector
The RCRA program aims to continue to support the development of new and innovative manufacturing technologies and processes that are used to manage waste sustainably. It will also continue to modify regulations so that companies, particularly those in the manufacturing sector, can operate in such a way that does not cause harm to the environment.
Prevent Exposure & Return Land and Water to Productive Use
The EPA and the states aim to continue to create new opportunities for employment and commerce to prevent exposure of people to hazardous waste. The RCRA will focus on protecting communities from illegal and high-risk hazardous waste operations at facilities. Additionally, the EPA intends to return lands and water to productive uses by creating opportunities for property redevelopment.
Focus on Sustainable Materials Managemenns
In the future, the RCRA will focus more on sustainable materials management rather than waste management to support a sustainable economy by improving the lifecycle of materials. The EPA aims to encourage material’s recovery, reuse, and recycling by all parties, specifically manufacturers.
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Strive for Innovation and Creativity
The RCRA aims to strive for continued innovation and creativity to find new sustainable solutions for the generation, treatment, transportation, storage, and disposal of hazardous waste. This will be done through partnerships, resources and skills, new technologies, and improving society’s access to information.