Resource Recovery Act Is Passed Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The 1970 Resource Recovery Act, an amendment to the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965, funded recycling programs and mandated extensive reassessment of solid-waste practices. The act’s passage marked the start of both recycling programs and a recycling “mentality” around the country.

Summary of Event

On October 26, 1970, President Richard M. Nixon signed the Resource Recovery Act, which amended the 1965 Solid Waste Disposal Act. The amendment was a bipartisan effort emerging from the U.S. Senate, particularly the subcommittee on air and water pollution. By redefining solid-waste disposal as “resource recovery,” the legislation indicated a shift in federal policy on how to manage garbage, refuse, rubbish, solid waste, and hazardous waste. The act also shifted emphasis from simple regulation of interstate commerce to the regulation of individual businesses. Resource Recovery Act (1970) Solid Waste Disposal Act (1965) Environmental policy, U.S.;solid waste Waste Pollution;legislation Recycling [kw]Resource Recovery Act Is Passed (Oct. 26, 1970) [kw]Act Is Passed, Resource Recovery (Oct. 26, 1970) Resource Recovery Act (1970) Solid Waste Disposal Act (1965) Environmental policy, U.S.;solid waste Waste Pollution;legislation Recycling [g]North America;Oct. 26, 1970: Resource Recovery Act Is Passed[10970] [g]United States;Oct. 26, 1970: Resource Recovery Act Is Passed[10970] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Oct. 26, 1970: Resource Recovery Act Is Passed[10970] [c]Environmental issues;Oct. 26, 1970: Resource Recovery Act Is Passed[10970] [c]Natural resources;Oct. 26, 1970: Resource Recovery Act Is Passed[10970] Nixon, Richard M. [p]Nixon, Richard M.;environmental policy Muskie, Edmund Mock, Kevin

The initial Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965 had supported the demonstration, construction, and applications of solid-waste management and resource-recovery systems that preserved the other environmental resources. That act had underwritten technical and financial assistance for the planning and development of the necessary facilities, and it had established a national research and development program for safe treatment and disposal of nonrecoverable residues and for the collection, separation, and recovery of recyclable solid waste. The emphasis was on organization and management rather than on the actual processes.

The new act gave the secretary of health, education, and welfare Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, U.S.;recycling (HEW) broad powers to carry out research and demonstration projects on recovering solid wastes and on deriving energy from such materials. An important aspect of the act was the assessment of resource-recovery methods. Other policy shifts included trying to improve recovery means and identifying potential markets for the recovered materials, gauging the impact of increased recovery, and encouraging a reduction of packaging, which was a truly revolutionary concept. The secretary was made responsible for studying the effects of existing public policies and of the incentives proposed in the legislation to change some of those policies.

Government agencies were encouraged to apply for grants to study existing practices, make plans, and propose new initiatives. Grants were also made available for demonstration projects for resource-recovery systems in which the federal share was to range between 50 and 75 percent of the cost.

The act also gave the secretary authority to fund research, an activity that was especially important given the state of the solid-waste management system at the time. A 1968 survey by the U.S. Public Health Service had reported that the nation’s collection system was largely controlled by local government or its contractors and that disposal was likewise under local control. All methods of disposal had associated problems; the vast majority of landfills were frighteningly inadequate, as were the incinerators.


With the 1970 Resource Recovery Act, the federal contribution to solid-waste management shifted to a new emphasis on recycling, resource recovery, and energy conversion of wastes. The baseline data on which the legislation was based had been gathered by a 1968 Public Health Service survey summarized in a 1971 report: The Third Pollution: The National Problem of Solid Waste Disposal. Third Pollution, The (government report) That publication reported political problems with the efforts to control solid-waste pollution; the Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had suggested a broader approach to the issue, with greater emphasis on resource issues.

Implementation of the act was, however, delayed. The act had given HEW the means and authority to revolutionize solid-waste management systems, but designated funds were not expended, and the various innovations and provisions for technical assistance to local governments fell behind schedule. The Nixon administration did not favor funding construction of demonstration facilities, instead proposing to tax products that were harmful to the environment. The Boggs Amendment Boggs Amendment proposed a national policy to continue the program of trying to reduce waste rather than to develop new ways of disposing of it.

At about the time the act was passed, combined garbage-collection systems were beginning to come into use, in which both rubbish and garbage—both putrescible and nonputrescible materials—were removed weekly by local authorities and disposed of in publicly owned facilities. The increasing amount of trash was a serious problem. Although hydraulic compaction was an important technological advance, the amount of trash—fast-food detritus, disposable baby diapers, combined and single-serve packaging—increased more rapidly than could be dealt with by even this new technique.

The problems associated with disposal in open dumps, still a common practice at the time, were brought to public attention by the death of a child, Kevin Mock, in a dump fire. This resulted in a major innovation, the sanitary landfill, which reduced the health problems as well as the burning and scavenging associated with the open dumps. A ban on open burning emerged as a component of air-pollution laws. The development of stronger compaction equipment led to less loose material. Individual households invested in trash compaction devices and garbage grinders in the sink, and some effort was made to encourage diversion of solid waste into the sanitary sewage. Daily coverage of the dumps with dirt reduced visual pollution and eliminated some of the vermin associated with open dumping. Subsequent analyses of sanitary landfills—such as William Rathje’s Garbage Project excavations—revealed that materials disposed of this way remained close to their original state for decades because the new conditions retarded decomposition.

At the time the act was passed, there were nearly two hundred incinerators in the United States, half of them located in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states. The 1970 act subsidized major trash burning projects in Menlo Park, California; Franklin, Ohio; and St. Louis, Missouri. The act also funded two important demonstration projects that involved pyrolysis of solid waste in San Diego, California, and Baltimore, Maryland; pyrolysis uses heat without oxygen to decompose solid waste to produce a fuel-like substance. The federal and local or state governments invested millions to study and demonstrate new technologies. According to the EPA, these grant-funded facilities were a small number of the nearly four dozen incinerators that came into use during this period.

Interest in recycling, other than industrial recycling, developed in a grassroots fashion. Early, informal recycling efforts were followed by more serious efforts, often handled by the Boy Scouts, CampFire Girls, or religious organizations, which interested individuals in the reuse and recycling of materials.

The results of research funded by the 1970 amendment were published by the federal government and circulated widely. Some ideas—such as how to organize rural collection systems—were inexpensive and practical, others were more costly and highly technical, such as information about how to use refuse in power plants or recover material in new ways.

The 1970 act continued the tradition of circulating information and requesting responses. The EPA eventually issued reports to Congress on the state of resource recovery and waste reduction. Eventually, the 1965 and 1970 acts were modified by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976. The earlier acts also initiated surveys of public and private solid-waste management efforts (one publication even summarized possible methods for dealing with abandoned cars). Information on state-of-the-art efforts and equipment came from the National Center for Resource Recovery, Inc., which was funded by federal grants. All this information would not have been available without the initiatives of the 1970 act. Resource Recovery Act (1970) Solid Waste Disposal Act (1965) Environmental policy, U.S.;solid waste Waste Pollution;legislation Recycling

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">The Leonardo Scholars. Resources and Decisions. North Scitate, Mass.: Duxbury Press, 1975. Provides a study of resource policy nearly contemporary with the 1970 Resource Recovery Act and points out the trend toward a reemphasis on recycling.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Melosi, Martin V. Garbage in the Cities: Refuse, Reform, and the Environment. Rev. ed. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005. Provides information critical to understanding the sanitation movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rathje, William, and Cullen Murphy. Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage. 1992. New ed. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2001. A survey of the history of garbage and summary of Rathje’s long-term garbage project. A readable and important source. Includes an updated preface.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rogers, Heather. Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage. New York: New Press, 2005. A history of the refuse and refuse disposal industry in the United States. Chapters include “The ’Waste Stream,’” “Rubbish Past,” “Rationalized Waste,” “Technological Fix: The Sanitary Landfill,” “Spaceship Earth: Waste and Environmentalism,” “Recycling: The Politics of Containment,” “The Corporatization of Garbage,” and “Green by Any Means.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Small, William E. The Third Pollution: The National Problem of Solid Waste Disposal. New York: Praeger, 1971. Information on the solid-waste problem and the associated politics of the period. The author was a member of the congressional staff when the Resource Recovery Act was debated and passed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Udall, Stewart L. The Quiet Crisis and the Next Generation. Salt Lake City, Utah: Peregrine Smith Books, 1988. Udall, the secretary of the Department of the Interior from 1961 to 1969, called for a new ethic in resource management in this now-classic work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zimring, Carl A. Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2005. A sociocultural and environmental history of recycling in the United States, but recycling with a twist. Zimring discusses the reusing of rubbish and waste as a part of everyday life, whereby discards and detritus were used for sustenance and moneymaking, long before an environmental consciousness—and calls for recycling to save the planet—swept through the United States and Europe.

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Categories: History