In past centuries, waste disposal was up to the individual or the local departments of health and sanitation. There was little or no distinction made in the type of waste, nor was consideration taken regarding potential health, safety, or aesthetic consequences. At this time, disposal was mainly through incineration, land filling, or disposing into rivers and streams. It was assumed, for example, that the water sources would dissipate the waste and render it harmless.
However, growing urban populations and increasing manufacturing and industrial processes made managing waste a significant endeavor. The issue was brought to national attention when the severely polluted Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio caught fire in 1969. Since that time, waste management within the United States has changed considerably.
Although waste management in the United States is decentralized and diverse, many of the Federal waste laws over the past 30 years establish minimum standards which are often incorporated into state and local laws or regulations. And, while states have the right to create more stringent standards, they cannot lessen the requirements. Federal waste laws are usually enforced by state and local governments with close federal oversight, primarily by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The goals of waste management are to minimize waste quantity, reduce the amount of raw materials consumed, dispose of non-hazardous waste cost-effectively, and dispose of hazardous waste with minimal risk to human health and the environment. Communities use a variety of methods to manage wastes depending on the type of waste involved. Methods used include landfilling, incineration, and composting, with both upstream and downstream separation of usable materials for recycling. There is also an increasing interest and awareness in the reuse of materials, as well as in source reduction through product redesign and efficient packaging. Together these are often referred to as the ?3Rs?—reduce, reuse, and recycle.
The EPA’s main directory for information on facilitating waste treatment and control in the U.S. provides education on best practices, new technologies, and current regulations.
The EPA’s main directory for initiatives promoting recycling and waste minimization explains the benefits, new technologies and their practical application, and provides access to data and publications.
Laws & Treaties
Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA)
Since its inception in 1976, RCRA and its amendments has been the most significant waste management legislation in American history. It creates a step-by-step management approach restricting and controlling the treatment, storage, and disposal of waste onto the land; mandates a permitting system to ensure safe management of hazardous waste; and implements a system to track hazardous waste as it moves from ‘cradle-to-grave.’
Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA)
CERCLA, amended in 1996 as the Superfund Amendment and Reauthorization Act (SARA), created ‘Superfund’ to address spills of hazardous waste and the clean-up of old, abandoned sites. It also requires major industries to report releases, transfers, and recycling of toxic chemicals to the EPA as part of the Toxics Release Inventory Program.
Safe Drinking Water Act
This act, in addition to RCRA, protects groundwater sources of potable water, mandates source prevention of pollution to surface waters, and regulates the underground injection of industrial and hazardous wastes.
Pollution Prevention Act (PPA) of 1990
The PPA established federal priorities for preferred types of municipal and industrial solid waste management methods.