Resource Conservation and Recovery Act

Definition

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), an amendment to the Solid Waste Disposal Act, was enacted in 1976 to address the problem of how to safely dispose of the huge volumes of municipal and industrial solid waste generated nationwide.

Purpose

The goals set by RCRA are: to protect human health and the environment; to reduce waste and conserve energy and natural resources; and to reduce or eliminate the generation of hazardous waste as expeditiously as possible.

To achieve these goals, four distinct yet interrelated programs exist under RCRA. The first program, under Subtitle D, encourages states to develop comprehensive plans to manage primarily nonhazardous solid waste, typically household waste. The second program, under Subtitle C, establishes a system for controlling hazardous waste from the time it is generated until its ultimate disposal—or from “cradle-to-grave.” The third program, under Subtitle I, regulates certain underground storage tanks. It establishes performance standards for new tanks and requires leak detection, prevention, and corrective action at underground tank sites. The newest program to be established is the medical waste program under Subtitle J. It establishes a demonstration program to track medical waste from generation to disposal.

Description

RCRA is a law that describes the kind of waste management program that Congress wants to establish. This description is written in very broad terms. It directs the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop and promulgate criteria for identifying the characteristics of hazardous waste. The Act also provides the Administrator of the EPA (or designated representative) with the authority necessary to carry out the intent of the act, including the authority to conduct inspections.

The act includes a congressional mandate for the EPA to develop a comprehensive set of regulations. Regulations are legal mechanisms that define how a statute's broad policy directives are to be implemented. RCRA regulations have been developed by the EPA, covering a range of topics from guidelines for state solid waste plans to a framework for the hazardous waste permit program.

Although the relationship between an act and its regulations follows the normal legislative pattern for acts, the relationship between the 1984 amendments to RCRA, the Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments (HSWA), and its regulations differs. HSWA is unusual in that Congress placed explicit requirements in the statute in addition to instructing the EPA in general language to develop regulations. Many of these requirements are so specific that the EPA incorporated them directly into the regulations. HSWA is all the more significant because of the ambitious schedules that Congress established to implement the act's provisions.

Another unique aspect of HSWA is that it establishes “hammer” provisions—statutory requirements that go into effect automatically as regulations if EPA fails to issue these regulations by certain dates. The EPA further clarifies its regulations through guidance documents and policy statements.

Policy statements specify operating procedures that should be followed. They are a mechanism used by EPA program offices to outline the manner in which pieces of the RCRA program are to be carried out. In most cases, policy statements are addressed to staff working on implementation. Many guidance and policy documents have been developed to aid in implementing the RCRA program. So that interested parties can find out what documents are available, the Office of Solid Waste's Directives System lists all RCRA-related policy guidance and memoranda and identifies where they can be obtained.

The RCRA works as follows: Subtitle D of the act encourages states to develop and implement solid waste management plans. These plans are intended to promote recycling of solid wastes and require closing or upgrading of all environmentally unsound dumps. Due to increasing volumes, solid waste management has become a key issue facing many localities and states. Recognizing this problem, Congress directed the EPA in HSWA to take an active role with the states in solving the difficult problem of solid waste management. The EPA revised standards that apply to municipal solid waste landfills. Current with the revision of these standards, the EPA formed a taskforce to analyze solid waste source reduction and recycling options. The revised solid waste standards, together with the taskforce findings, form the basis for the EPA's development of strategies to better regulate municipal solid waste management.

Subtitle C establishes a program to manage hazardous wastes from cradle-to-grave. The objective of the C program is to ensure that hazardous waste is handled in a manner that protects human health and the environment. To this end, there are Subtitle C regulations regarding the generation, transportation and treatment, storage, or disposal of hazardous wastes. In practical terms, this means regulating a large number of hazardous waste handlers.

The Subtitle C program resulted in perhaps the most comprehensive regulations the EPA ever developed. It first identified those solid wastes that are “hazardous” and then established various administrative requirements for the three categories of hazardous waste handlers: generators, transporters and owners or operators of treatment, storage, and disposal facilities (TSDFs). In addition, Subtitle C regulations set technical standards for the design and safe operation of TSDFs. These standards were designed to minimize the release of hazardous waste into the environment. Furthermore, the regulations for TSDFs served as the basis for developing and using the permits required for each facility. Issuing permits is essential to making the Subtitle C regulatory program work, since it is through the permitting process that the EPA or a state actually applies the technical standards to facilities.

Subtitle I regulates petroleum products and hazardous substances (as defined under Superfund) stored in underground tanks. The objective of Subtitle I is to prevent leakage to groundwater from tanks and to clean up past releases. Under Subtitle I, the EPA developed performance standards for new tanks and regulations for leak detection, prevention, closure, financial responsibility, and corrective action at all underground tank sites. This program may be delegated to states.

Subtitle J was added by Congress when, in the summer of 1988, medical wastes washed up on Atlantic beaches, thus highlighting the inadequacy of medical waste management practices. Subtitle J instructed the EPA to develop a two-year demonstration program to track medical waste from generation to disposal in demonstration states. The demonstration program was completed in 1991, and it was concluded that at generation, the disease-causing potential of medical waste was at its greatest and it naturally tapered off after that.

Congress and the president set the overall national direction for RCRA programs. The EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response translates this direction into operating programs by developing regulations, guidelines, and policy. The EPA then implements RCRA programs or delegates implementation to the states, providing them with technical and financial assistance.

Origins

Although RCRA was enacted in 1976, the problem of waste disposal has roots that go back well before that time. There was a time when the amount of waste produced in the United States was small and its impact on the environment relatively minor. However, with the industrial revolution in the latter part of the nineteenth century, the country began to grow at an unprecedented speed. New products were developed, and consumers were offered an ever-expanding array of material goods.

This growth continued through the early twentieth century and increased rapidly after World War II when the nation's industrial base, strengthened by the war, turned its energies toward domestic production. The results of this growth were not all positive. With more goods came more waste, both hazardous and nonhazardous. In the late 1940s, the United States was generating roughly 500,000 metric tons of hazardous waste a year. The EPA has estimated that in the early twenty-first century, several hundred million tons of hazardous waste are generated annually nationwide.

Waste management was slow in coming. Much of the waste produced made its way into the environment where it began to pose a serious threat to ecological systems and public health. In the mid-1970s, it became clear to both Congress and the nation that action had to be taken to ensure that solid wastes were managed properly. This realization began the process that resulted in the passage of the RCRA.

Although the RCRA created a framework for the proper management of hazardous and nonhazardous solid waste, it did not address the problems of hazardous waste encountered at inactive or abandoned sites or those resulting from spills that require emergency response. These problems are addressed by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly called Superfund.

KEY TERMS
Hazardous waste—
Waste that is potentially harmful to public health or the environment, for example, paints, batteries, cleaners, and oil.
Municipal—
Relating to a town or city.

The RCRA refers to the overall program resulting from the Solid Waste Disposal Act. The Solid Waste Disposal Act was enacted in 1965 for the primary purpose of improving solid waste disposal methods. It was amended in 1970 by the Resource Recovery Act and again in 1976 by RCRA. The changes embodied in the RCRA remodeled the nation's solid waste management system and added provisions pertaining to hazardous waste management.

The act continued to evolve as Congress amended it to reflect changing needs. It was amended several times since 1976, once significantly in 1984. The 1984 amendments, called the Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments, expanded the scope and requirements of the RCRA. Provisions resulting from the 1984 amendments were significant, since they tended to deal with the waste problems resulting from more complex technology.

Results

Waste minimization or reduction is a major EPA goal. It is defined as any source reduction or recycling activity that results in either reduction of total volume of hazardous waste or reduction of toxicity of hazardous waste, or both, as long as that reduction is consistent with the general goal of minimizing present and future threats to human health and the environment. The EPA continues to work to reduce or minimize waste, but the United States has progressed steadily under the RCRA. When the act became law, the United States produced almost 300 million tons of hazardous waste each year. This was reduced to 214 million tons by 1995 (the twenty-fifth anniversary of the RCRA). In 2009, the EPA estimated that hazardous waste had been reduced to 35 million tons, 12 million tons less than just two years earlier. Additionally, as of 2010, the national recycling rate was at 34.1%, an increase from 25% in 1995 and from the low teens when the act began. These numbers show that RCRA is working and making progress when it comes to waste management.

See also Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) ; Hazardous waste ; Medical waste .

Resources

BOOKS

McMichael, Susan M. RCRA Permitting Deskbook. Washington, DC: Environmental Law Institute, 2011.

VanGuilder, Clifton. Hazardous Waste Management. Dulles, VA: Mercury Learning and Information, 2011.

WEBSITES

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Frequent Questions.” http://www.epa.gov/osw/hazard/wastemin/minimize/faqs.htm (accessed October 30, 2012).

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Managing Hazardous Waste (RCRA).” http://yosemite.epa.gov/r10/owcm.nsf/7468f0692f73df9a88256500005d62e8/1a9900b8c988454b8825675f00775776?opendocument (accessed October 30, 2012).

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “The National Biennial RCRA Hazardous Waste Report.” http://www.epa.gov/lawsregs/laws/rcra.html (accessed October 30, 2012).

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Summary of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.” http://www.epa.gov/lawsregs/laws/rcra.html (accessed October 30, 2012).

ORGANIZATIONS

International Solid Waste Association, Auerspergstrasse 15, Top 41, Vienna, Austria, 1080, 43 1 (253) 6001, Fax: 43 1 (253) 6001 99, iswa@iswa.org, http://www.iswa.org .

National Solid Waste Management Association, 4301 Connecticut Ave. NW, Ste. 300, Washington, DC, 20008, (202) 244-4700, (800) 424-2869, Fax: (202) 966-4824, http://www.environmentalistseveryday.org .

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Ariel Rios Bldg., 1200 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, DC, 20460, (202) 272-0167; TTY (202) 272-0165, http://www.epa.gov .

Liane Clorfene Casten
Revised by Tish Davidson, AM

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.