Solid Waste Disposal Act Is Passed

The 1965 Solid Waste Disposal Act marked the first federal attempt to address inadequate solid-waste disposal methods.

Summary of Event

The Solid Waste Disposal Act, which was passed on October 20, 1965, was the first federal law on solid-waste management. In its opening statement, the act noted “an ever mounting increase” in discarded materials from population and economic growth—an increase that, coupled with the concentration of population in metropolitan areas, was creating serious financial, management, intergovernmental, and technical problems in the disposal of solid waste. Although the responsibility for solid-waste disposal lay with state and local governments, the matter was of national concern. Solid Waste Disposal Act (1965)
Environmental policy, U.S.;solid waste
[kw]Solid Waste Disposal Act Is Passed (Oct. 20, 1965)
[kw]Act Is Passed, Solid Waste Disposal (Oct. 20, 1965)
Solid Waste Disposal Act (1965)
Environmental policy, U.S.;solid waste
[g]North America;Oct. 20, 1965: Solid Waste Disposal Act Is Passed[08610]
[g]United States;Oct. 20, 1965: Solid Waste Disposal Act Is Passed[08610]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Oct. 20, 1965: Solid Waste Disposal Act Is Passed[08610]
[c]Environmental issues;Oct. 20, 1965: Solid Waste Disposal Act Is Passed[08610]
Muskie, Edmund

The act, sponsored in Congress by Senator Edmund Muskie, recommended that the federal government provide financial and technical assistance to local agencies for the solution of solid-waste problems. The act also set goals for the reduction of unsalvaged materials and for the implementation of proper and economical solid-waste disposal practices. The research and development program included conservation of natural resources and reduction of waste.

The act also urged the cooperation of various governmental units in this effort. The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) was to be allowed as much as $20 million to use in such efforts, and smaller amounts were allotted for the secretary of the interior. In its legislative history of the act, the Public Works Committee reported that a slightly smaller amount of money was actually expended. In 1967, when $14 million had been authorized and $12.4 million requested and appropriated by Congress, $12.3 million was actually spent. Later, such underexpenditures became common.

The act funded the gathering of basic information, scientific research, and demonstration projects. A publication summarizing the projects between 1965 and 1970 indicated the early focus on information gathering. There were many small grants on training and research, which ranged from a health-hazard study to a model code and even a mathematical model of waste flows. Of this group of forty-five expenditures, a few involved basic science, but most were geared to applications. A small number of moderately funded projects studied the disposal management in specific industries; some specific technical projects received larger grants. Often, the research results and grant reports were later published by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), thus guaranteeing wide, inexpensive circulation subsidized by the taxpayers. This was ideal for disseminating the information and implementing changes. More important, such basic information was the foundation for later initiatives at the local government level.


At the time the Solid Waste Disposal Act was passed, the methods of dealing with garbage had not evolved much since early in the century, when local governments had assumed the responsibility for collecting and disposing of garbage. Collection methods had improved somewhat with the development of compression technology, which led to such innovations as the packer truck and the transfer station. Disposal methods had remained largely land-based and tended to use open dumps, which were coming into conflict with evolving pollution-reduction programs. The incinerators in use at the time were a mixture of plain-burner and waste-to-energy facilities; they too were beginning to be affected by pollution initiatives.

Only a small amount of garbage was being recycled through source separation, but that approach was being reevaluated as compaction and other procedures, which were easier to implement, became more widespread. In a time of economic prosperity, it was easier to start with new materials than bother with source-separated ones.

The National Office of Solid Waste Management, which was part of HEW, and the Public Health Service focused attention on the garbage problem and provided training and information for the local governments responsible for solid waste.

Starting in 1965, Congress allocated $15 million to meet the goals of the act, with almost half of the money going to contracts. About one-third went to demonstration projects, and the remainder went to research, training, and planning.

A subsidiary issue was the eventual shift of responsibility from HEW to the fledgling EPA. Part of that shift was the transfer of the Bureau of Solid Waste Management to a new location in Cincinnati. Before the act was adopted, solid waste had been a health hazard managed by sanitary engineers who used collection vehicles with ever-greater compaction potential. Later research by William Rathje revealed that much of the compressed materials never decomposed.

After the act was implemented, concern for sanitary engineering and health protection extended to a new emphasis on resources. The initial work in solid waste had focused on health issues, but during this period, the engineering issues and resource conservation issues also became important.

A major survey conducted by the Public Health Service found that the existing system of collecting and disposing of solid waste in the United States was primarily administered by local governments. Collection was usually weekly and under the authority of the local government. Land-based ground disposal, being less expensive than other options, was still the more common method. Incineration was used in the disposal of paper, food, and yard waste.

The survey also revealed that 94 percent of land-disposal systems and 75 percent of incinerators were inadequate. Incinerators, though they reduced the volume of waste, produced air pollution. The land sites were not sanitary landfills but dumps, where materials were left exposed and could lead to serious environmental and health problems. Nearly 90 percent of the dumps did not cover the materials daily; three-quarters were judged to be unsightly, and those that burned materials to reduce the volume thereby released air pollution. The survey indicated that what was needed were sanitary landfills that were covered with earth daily and where no burning would occur; unsightliness and odors, as well as insects and vermin, would thus be minimized.

After passage of the 1965 act, new disposal systems were financed by users and local governments. Improved higher-compaction trucks were added to the collection system, and all waste, even that which had formerly been source-separated, began to be collected together, compacted, and taken to central, rural sites, where it was covered with earth at the end of each day.

The development of these sanitary landfills came relatively quickly; often swamplands were reclaimed for the purpose. Source separation and centralized recycling efforts became obsolete. These developments changed everyday life in the United States. Solid Waste Disposal Act (1965)
Environmental policy, U.S.;solid waste

Further Reading

  • The Leonardo Scholars. Resources and Decisions. North Scituate, Mass.: Duxbury Press, 1975. Provides a study of resource policy nearly contemporary with the 1965 Solid Waste Disposal Act.
  • Melosi, Martin V. Garbage in the Cities: Refuse, Reform, and the Environment. Rev. ed. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005. Emphasizes the Gilded Age and provides background to the sanitation movement. Includes a chapter, however, on the problem of garbage in the late twentieth century.
  • Packard, Vance. The Waste Makers. New York: David McKay, 1960. An overview of America’s emerging culture of waste by a popular writer. Written at a time when the average citizen was just beginning to be aware of the problem of waste.
  • Rathje, William, and Cullen Murphy. Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage. 1992. New ed. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2001. Combines a survey of the history of garbage with archaeological results of the author’s long-term garbage project. Readable and essential. Includes an updated preface.
  • 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.”
  • Small, William E. Third Pollution: The National Problem of Solid Waste Disposal. New York: Praeger, 1971. Brings together information on the solid-waste problem and the politics of the period. As a congressional staffer, Small helped move the Resource Recovery Act through Congress.
  • Udall, Stewart L. The Quiet Crisis and the Next Generation. Salt Lake City, Utah: Peregrine Smith Books, 1988. An update to Udall’s 1963 work The Quiet Crisis. Calls for a new ethic in resource management. As secretary of the interior from 1961 to 1969, Udall was able to influence government policy.
  • 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 widespread calls for recycling to save the planet.

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