“Cradle-to-Grave” Legislation Covers Hazardous Wastes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Passage of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act established comprehensive requirements for the management of hazardous wastes in the United States.

Summary of Event

On October 21, 1976, the U.S. Congress enacted the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which proved to be the benchmark piece of legislation for the management of hazardous wastes. In June of that year, the Senate enacted its version, after which the House of Representatives held hearings on the legislation. The House version eventually integrated the Senate’s version, and the bill passed by a vote of 367 to 8 and was signed by President Gerald R. Ford. The bill had a relatively short legislative history, and because of the limited time for debate and conference, the legislation was ambiguously formulated in many aspects. As a result, the bill would continue to be interpreted years after its passage. Hazardous waste;legislation Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (1976) [kw]"Cradle-to-Grave" Legislation Covers Hazardous Wastes (Oct. 21, 1976) [kw]Legislation Covers Hazardous Wastes, “Cradle-to-Grave” (Oct. 21, 1976) [kw]Hazardous Wastes, “Cradle-to-Grave” Legislation Covers (Oct. 21, 1976) [kw]Wastes, “Cradle-to-Grave” Legislation Covers Hazardous (Oct. 21, 1976) Hazardous waste;legislation Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (1976) [g]North America;Oct. 21, 1976: “Cradle-to-Grave” Legislation Covers Hazardous Wastes[02570] [g]United States;Oct. 21, 1976: “Cradle-to-Grave” Legislation Covers Hazardous Wastes[02570] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Oct. 21, 1976: “Cradle-to-Grave” Legislation Covers Hazardous Wastes[02570] [c]Environmental issues;Oct. 21, 1976: “Cradle-to-Grave” Legislation Covers Hazardous Wastes[02570] Ford, Gerald R. [p]Ford, Gerald R.;environmental policy Train, Russell E.

The first amendments to the RCRA—the Quiet Communities Act of 1978 Quiet Communities Act (1978) and the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1980 Solid Waste Disposal Act (1980) —did little to interpret the myriad aspects of the complex legislation. The Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments of 1984 Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments (1984) added many provisions that directed the Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop new rules. The EPA was directed to develop regulations for waste generators and transporters and for facilities for treatment, storage, and disposal (TSD) that managed less than 1,000 kilograms (kg) of hazardous waste per month. The 1984 amendments added approximately seventy major provisions, of which fifty required the EPA to undertake studies and take actions in 1985 and 1986. The result of the 1984 amendments was a substantially revamped and expanded version of the RCRA that provided for more effective management, tracking, and regulation of hazardous wastes in the United States.

Through required permitting, monitoring, and enforcement programs, the RCRA would affect an estimated 500,000 companies and individuals. The rate of hazardous-waste generation in the United States has been estimated at several hundred million tons per year. The RCRA provided the basis for controlling these materials through its regulatory structure and through management requirements imposed on companies and individuals that generate, transport, treat, store, and dispose of hazardous wastes. The act did not address the management of abandoned or closed facilities. Wastes at these sites were later made subject to the 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (1980) (CERCLA), better known as Superfund. Superfund (1980)

The RCRA, which is enforced by the EPA, was originally divided into subtitles A through J. Subtitle C remained the most routinely cited and best known, because it provided guidance for the national hazardous-waste management program. In subtitle C, the EPA was required to develop regulations for the identification of hazardous wastes either by listing them specifically or by identifying them by their characteristics. A company that disagreed with the listing of its waste could submit a delisting petition to have the waste exempted from coverage by the RCRA; the EPA had to act on a delisting petition within two years of its submission.

A waste not listed by the EPA could still be covered by the RCRA if it exhibited one or more of the following characteristics: ignitability, corrosivity, reactivity, or toxicity. There were specific and detailed guidelines for determining the characteristics of a waste to ascertain whether it met any of the criteria. There were additional guidelines for mixed wastes and for those that were derived from hazardous wastes.

In addition to the inherent regulatory powers provided to the EPA by the RCRA, the act provided the administrator of the EPA with the power to bring suit to remedy hazardous-waste situations that represented an imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment. Suit could be brought in district court against any person or company, and it could be brought for past infractions as well.

The RCRA, which provided for criminal penalties, fines, and imprisonment, was the mechanism by which many corporate officers and employees were prosecuted for improper management of hazardous wastes.

The record-keeping aspects of the RCRA were the basis for effective control of hazardous wastes in the United States. Since many disposal sites received wastes from all over the country, it was imperative that accurate records be maintained. The system called for in the act allowed hazardous wastes to be tracked from initial generation to disposal. Generators and transporters, as well as all TSD facilities, were required to keep records of every stage of the process.

One of the most beneficial aspects of the RCRA and its many amendments was the shift of focus on the part of industry away from hazardous-waste production toward pollution prevention, waste minimization, and recycling. These efforts helped not only to preserve and protect the environment but also to reduce cost and enhance profitability. Incentives and other mechanisms to encourage efforts to minimize waste and prevent pollution appeared throughout the United States. Although levels of hazardous wastes continued to increase, the rate of increase was thought to slow.


Until the RCRA, no federal legislation addressed hazardous-waste management. As a result, billions of dollars needed to be spent for the cleanup of abandoned and historical hazardous-waste problems. The focus of the RCRA was to avoid making this aspect of the problem even worse. To that end, waste minimization was thought to be the most desirable approach, since it reduced the amount of waste and therefore the associated risks. Many companies began to change their approach to manufacturing, production, and fabrication and actively sought alternatives to hazardous materials and to activities that led to the production of hazardous wastes. Choosing wisely among the options for minimizing wastes was imperative. This was particularly true because of the difficulty of finding sites for new, permitted facilities. Public opposition to new RCRA facilities proved high, a response called the not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) syndrome. NIMBY (not in my backyard) syndrome This response from the public was frequently accompanied by its political equivalent, not-in-my-term-of-office syndrome. The lack of disposal capacity led to large volumes of hazardous wastes being shipped long distances, which in turn led to expensive liability and risk issues. Thus the cost for transport and disposal, along with local opposition to hazardous-waste production and disposal, played a significant role in developing the waste-minimization programs that many companies pursued to avoid RCRA fines.

The number of facilities available for managing hazardous wastes shrank steadily. Many facilities that no longer had the financial resources and technical means to ensure safe management, as mandated by law, had to close. Their closing was desirable from a health and environmental standpoint, but there was the danger that too many facilities might close and result in inadequate capacity for managing and disposing of hazardous wastes.

Although the EPA and the states would share the responsibility for regulating commercial hazardous wastes, the act did not address one of the major sources for hazardous wastes: the typical American household. Drain openers, oven cleaners, wood and metal polishes and cleaners, paint thinners, oil and fuel additives, herbicides, pesticides, adhesives, fungicides, wood preservatives, grease and rust solvents, and many other household items in common use were often sent to municipal landfills and other disposal facilities, with little control or monitoring.

The RCRA set the stage for managing large- and small-scale commercial sources of hazardous wastes. RCRA also made management of these wastes more costly and increased the liabilities associated with their production. By doing so, the act set in motion the shift seen in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s that moved industry toward innovative and alternative actions to minimize the volumes of hazardous wastes produced, stored, transported, treated, and disposed. The act also led to a significantly higher level of understanding and involvement of the American public in the debate about hazardous-waste management. Hazardous waste;legislation Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (1976)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Arbuckle, J. Gordon, et al. Environmental Law Handbook. 18th ed. Rockville, Md.: Government Institutes, 2005. Provides detailed information on all U.S. environmental legislation. Updated frequently.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Findley, Roger W., and Daniel A. Farber. Findley and Farber’s Environmental Law in a Nutshell. 6th ed. Eagan, Minn.: West, 2004. Provides excellent background on and insight into the legislative processes surrounding environmental statutes in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Probst, Katherine N., and Thomas C. Beierle. The Evolution of Hazardous Waste Programs: Lessons from Eight Countries. Washington, D.C.: Resources for the Future, 1999. Brief volume compares the management of hazardous waste in eight nations, including the United States, Canada, Germany, and Thailand. Focuses on the major steps in the development of a successful waste management program and on the role of the public sector in that development.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Environmental Progress and Challenges: EPA’s Update. Washington, D.C.: Author, 1988. Provides an overview of the EPA agendas in a variety of environmental statutory areas. Discusses problems and the steps being pursued toward their resolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wagner, Travis P. The Complete Guide to the Hazardous Waste Regulations: RCRA, TSCA, HMTA, OSHA, and Superfund. 3d ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1999. Provides easy-to-understand information designed to help industry professionals comply with all existing regulations. The first section is devoted to the RCRA. Includes checklists, flowcharts, tables, and index.

U.S. Congress Protects Public Against Hazardous Waste in Transit

Toxic Waste Is Discovered at Love Canal

Superfund Is Established to Pay for Hazardous-Waste Cleanup

U.S. Congress Addresses “Low-Level” Nuclear Waste

Citizens’ Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste Is Founded

U.S. Congress Addresses “High-Level” Nuclear Waste

Yucca Mountain Is Designated a Radioactive Waste Repository

Categories: History