By 1960, the US was generating 88 million tons of garbage every year. The previous half century had seen the emergence of disposable paper and plastic items, cheap appliances and other consumer goods with short lives, an expansion of types of materials in garbage, and a drastic increase in packaging. Garbage was becoming a big problem.
Congress passed the Solid Waste Disposal Act in 1965 because disposal of all this waste was largely unregulated, with communities practicing open dumping and burning. The act was amended in 1976 by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) which, along with various amendments, is the law that still regulates solid waste in the US. In the industry, when you see RCRA you say “wreck-rah” or “rick-rah”.
RCRA has 10 subtitles (A-J), but you mostly hear about two: Subtitle-C and Subtitle-D. Subtitle-D deals with nonhazardous solid waste and Subtitle-C regulates hazardous waste.
Subtitle-D defines solid waste as garbage, refuse, sludges from waste treatment plants, water treatment plants, or pollution control facilities, industrial wastes, other discarded materials, including solid, semisolid, liquid, or contained gaseous materials resulting from industrial, commercial, mining, agricultural, and community activities.
One of the most significant effects of Subtitle-D was that it forced many municipalities out of the landfill business by designating as an open dump any disposal facility that did not meet the new standards. RCRA required costly upgrades for landfills. Many of the smaller municipal landfills did not receive the volume of waste that was needed to make such upgrades financially viable. There were as many as 8,000 landfills in 1988, when RCRA came out. Now there are as few as 1,600 (although landfill capacity in the US has grown).
Subtitle-C created a cradle-to-grave management system for hazardous waste in the United States, tracking hazardous waste from generation through transportation to its final disposal. Subtitle C requires every shipment of hazardous waste to be tracked by a manifest called the Uniform Hazardous Waste Manifest (EPA Form 8700-22). Each generator, transporter, treatment, storage, and disposal facility must sign the manifest when they receive the waste and retain a copy. (True to form, the EPA has also published a ten-page list of instructions about how to fill out the manifest). I found an interesting FAQ on hazardous waste that explains several other points.
RCRA, like most large-scale laws, suffers from an inability to be nimble. For example, all landfills are required to meet the same environmental protection criteria, regardless of their proximity to populations. As landfill expert G Fred Lee explained to us, it makes more sense to have laws that regulate how much environmental degradation is acceptable based on location, rather than to create a wishful standard of perfection.
If you are interested in learning more about RCRA, you can read the EPA’s official Orientation Manual. The full-text of the act is available here. If you are interested in learning more about the artwork in this post, please visit this Wikipedia article.