The nation's top solid waste law is about to turn 40.
On Oct. 21, 1976 — one day before the final debate in his unsuccessful election bid — President Gerald Ford signed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) into law. In a subsequent press release, Ford said the law "provides sound State and local programs to deal with ever increasing amounts of municipal solid wastes generated in this country."
This law officially amended the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965 to establish a framework for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate the generation, treatment and disposal of all solid and hazardous waste. The text also includes a number of sections around reduction, energy recovery and the federal government's oversight role in relation to state and local programs which remain relevant.
The law's effects on restoring contaminated land, reducing emissions, preventing improper handling of waste, raising recycling rates and a wide range of other environmental benefits cannot be understated. Since it was signed into law, RCRA has evolved over the years through a series of regulatory and legislative updates and remains a core part of the waste industry.
"RCRA is one of the great environmental success stories of the past 40 years," wrote David Biderman, CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), in an emailed statement. "We’ve gone from having more than 10,000 dumps, some of which contaminated nearby waterways and adjacent properties, to a much smaller number of strictly regulated, highly engineered, permitted sanitary landfills, that are also a source of renewable energy."
Yet the 2014 EPA report “RCRA’s Critical Mission & The Path Forward" indicates that more can be done when it comes to solid waste. After citing the progress on recycling it reads, "...although great strides have been taken and measurable results achieved, RCRA's conservation mandate has not been fully realized."
The report goes on to highlight EPA's shift to a "sustainable materials management" approach that takes into account the full lifecycle of a product and its environmental effects. Last year, the agency released a "Sustainable Materials Management Program Strategic Plan" for fiscal years 2017-2022 with details on advancing that agenda. The plan's top objectives are to decrease the disposal rate, reduce the environmental effects of materials across their lifecycle, increase socio-economic benefits and increase the capacity of state or local governments and communities to implement sustainable materials management policies and practices.
Other countries have taken a more national approach to waste policy through landfill taxes or recycling goals, but this still seems unlikely in the U.S. given the challenges of enacting federal reforms and the array of local factors involved. The agency's public affairs office declined to comment on the potential for these types of national policies. In response, they highlighted the National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship and federal goal of reducing food waste 50% by 2030.
The EPA does plan to host a "RCRA Next" event in December to discuss the program's role over the next 40 years. While the agenda is still being finalized, a spokesperson for the public affairs office said via email that topics will include "issues related to human health and the environment with respect to solid, industrial and hazardous waste, facility cleanup of hazardous waste, as well as regulatory and cross-program issues affecting RCRA."
Next week on Oct. 26, The Horinko Group will be hosting a summit called "The Future of RCRA – Making the Business Case" in Washington, D.C. Waste Dive is attending and will report back with updates on where national waste policy may be headed in the coming decades.