Resource Conservation and Recovery Act

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Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
Great Seal of the United States
Other short titlesResource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976
Long titleAn Act to provide technical and financial assistance for the development of management plans and facilities for the recovery of energy and other resources from discarded materials and for the safe disposal of discarded materials, and to regulate the management of hazardous waste.
Acronyms (colloquial)RCRA
NicknamesSolid Waste Utilization Act
Enacted bythe 94th United States Congress
EffectiveOctober 21, 1976
Public law94-580
Statutes at Large90 Stat. 2795
Acts amendedSolid Waste Disposal Act of 1965
Titles amended42 U.S.C.: Public Health and Social Welfare
U.S.C. sections created42 U.S.C. ch. 82 § 6901 et seq.
Legislative history
United States Supreme Court cases

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), enacted in 1976, is the principal federal law in the United States governing the disposal of solid waste and hazardous waste.[1]

History and goals[edit]

Congress enacted RCRA to address the increasing problems the nation faced from its growing volume of municipal and industrial waste. RCRA was an amendment of the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965. The act set national goals for:

The RCRA program is a joint federal and state endeavor, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) providing basic requirements that states then adopt, adapt, and enforce.[3] RCRA is now most widely known for the regulations promulgated under it that set standards for the treatment, storage and disposal of hazardous waste in the United States. However, it also plays an integral role in the management of municipal and industrial waste as well as underground storage tanks.[3]


EPA has published waste management regulations, which are codified in Title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations at parts 239 through 282.[4] Regulations regarding management of hazardous waste begin in part 260.[5] States are authorized to operate their own hazardous waste programs, which must be at least as stringent as federal standards, and are tasked with creating state implementation plans for managing solid waste.[3]

In California, the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) is the primary authority enforcing the RCRA requirements, as well as the California Hazardous Waste Control Law (HWCL) of 1972.


Types of solid waste

Subtitle A: General Provisions[edit]

  • Congressional Findings; Objectives and National Policy
  • Definitions
  • Interstate Cooperation; Application of Act and Integration with Other Acts
  • Financial Disclosure; Solid Waste Management Information and Guidelines

Subtitle B: Office of Solid Waste; Authorities of the Administrator[edit]

  • Office of Solid Waste and Interagency Coordinating Committee
  • Authorities of EPA Administrator
  • Resource Recovery and Conservation Panels; Grants
  • Annual Report; Office of Ombudsman

Subtitle C: "Cradle to Grave" requirements for hazardous waste[edit]

Arguably the most notable provisions of the RCRA statute are included in Subtitle C, which directs EPA to establish controls on the management of hazardous wastes from their point of generation, through their transportation and treatment, storage and/or disposal. Because RCRA requires controls on hazardous waste generators (i.e., sites that generate hazardous waste), transporters, and treatment, storage and disposal facilities (i.e., facilities that ultimately treat/dispose of or recycle the hazardous waste), the overall regulatory framework has become known as the "cradle to grave" system. States are authorized to implement their own hazardous waste programs.[3] The statute imposes stringent recordkeeping and reporting requirements on generators, transporters, and operators of treatment, storage and disposal facilities handling hazardous waste.

EPA graphic explaining municipal solid waste

Subtitle D: Non-hazardous Solid Wastes[edit]

Subtitle D provides criteria for landfills and other waste disposal facilities, and banned open landfills.[6] EPA published its initial standards in 1979 for "sanitary" landfills that receive municipal solid waste.[7] The "solid waste" definition includes garbage (e.g., food containers, coffee grounds), non-recycled household appliances, residue from incinerated automobile tires, refuse such as metal scrap, construction materials, and sludge from industrial and sewage treatment plants and drinking water treatment plants.[8] Subtitle D also exempted certain hazardous wastes from the Subtitle C regulations, such as hazardous wastes from households and from conditionally exempt small quantity generators.

Special wastes[edit]

In 1980 Congress designated several kinds of industrial wastes as "special wastes," which are exempt from Subtitle C, including oil and gas exploration and production wastes (such as drill cuttings, produced water, and drilling fluids), coal combustion residuals generated by electric power plants and other industries, mining waste, and cement kiln dust.[9] See Solid Waste Disposal Amendments of 1980.

Subtitle E: Department of Commerce responsibilities[edit]

  • Development of Specifications for secondary materials; Development of markets for recovered material.
  • Technology promotion

Subtitle F: Federal responsibilities[edit]

  • Application of Federal, State and Local Law to Federal Facilities
  • Federal procurement
  • Cooperation with EPA; Applicability of solid waste disposal guidelines to executive agencies

Subtitle G: Miscellaneous provisions[edit]

  • Whistleblower protection. Employees in the United States who believe they were fired or suffered another adverse action related to enforcement of this law have 30 days to file a written complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
  • Citizen Suits; Imminent Hazard suits
  • Petition for regulations; Public participation

Subtitle H: Research, Development, Demonstration and Information[edit]

  • Research, Demonstrations, Training; Special Studies
  • Coordination, collection, dissemination of information

Subtitle I: Underground Storage Tanks[edit]


The operation of underground storage tanks (USTs) became subject to the RCRA regulatory program with enactment of the Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments of 1984 (HSWA).[10] At that time there were about 2.1 million tanks subject to federal regulation, and the EPA program led to closure and removal of most substandard tanks.[11] As of 2009 there were approximately 600,000 active USTs at 223,000 sites subject to federal regulation.[12]

Regulatory requirements

The federal UST regulations cover tanks storing petroleum or listed hazardous substances, and define the types of tanks permitted. EPA established a tank notification system to track UST status. UST regulatory programs are principally administered by state and U.S. territorial agencies.[13]

The regulations set standards for:

  • Groundwater monitoring
  • Secondary Containment
  • Release detection, prevention and correction
  • Spill prevention
  • Overfill prevention (for petroleum products)
  • Restrictions on land disposal of untreatable hazardous waste products.

The Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986 (SARA) required owners and operators of USTs to ensure corrective action is completed when a tank is in need of repair, or removal, when it is necessary to protect human health and the environment.[14] The amendments established a trust fund to pay for the cleanup of leaking UST sites where responsible parties cannot be identified.[15]

It is also recommended that above-ground storage tanks are used whenever possible.[16][17]

Subtitle J: Medical Waste (expired)[edit]

RCRA Subtitle J regulated medical waste in four states (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island) and Puerto Rico, and expired on March 22, 1991. (See Medical Waste Tracking Act.) State environmental and health agencies regulate medical waste, rather than EPA. Other federal agencies have issued safety regulations governing the handling of medical waste, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Food and Drug Administration.[18]

Amendments and related legislation[edit]

Solid Waste Disposal Amendments of 1980[edit]

Congress exempted several types of wastes from classification as hazardous under Subtitle C in its 1980 amendment to RCRA. The Solid Waste Disposal Amendments of 1980[19] designated the following categories as "special wastes" and not subject to the stricter permitting requirements of Subtitle C:

These legislative exemptions, known as the "Bevill exclusion" and the "Bentsen exclusion", were intended to be temporary, pending studies conducted by EPA and subsequent determinations as to whether any of these waste categories should be classified as hazardous. In its reviews following the 1980 amendments, EPA determined that most of the exempted waste types would continue to be classified as non-hazardous.[21]


EPA published a CCR regulation in 2015 that would restrict the continued use of unlined ash ponds (surface impoundments) by coal-fired power plants.[22] This regulation, was which was modified by the Trump administration in 2018,[23][24] has been challenged in litigation and remanded to EPA for further revision by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.[25][26] In response to the court decision, EPA published a proposed rule on December 2, 2019 that would establish an August 31, 2020 deadline for facilities to stop placing ash in unlined impoundments. The proposal would also provide additional time for some facilities—up to eight years—to find alternatives for managing ash wastes before closing surface impoundments.[27][28]


The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as "Superfund," was enacted in 1980 to address the problem of remediating abandoned hazardous waste sites, by establishing legal liability, as well as a trust fund for cleanup activities.[29] In general CERCLA applies to contaminated sites, while RCRA's focus is on controlling the ongoing generation and management of particular waste streams. RCRA, like CERCLA, has provisions to require cleanup of contaminated sites that occurred in the past.

Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments of 1984[edit]

In 1984 Congress expanded the scope of RCRA with the enactment of Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments (HSWA).[10] The amendments strengthened the law by covering small quantity generators of hazardous waste and establishing requirements for hazardous waste incinerators, and the closing of substandard landfills.[2]

Land Disposal Program Flexibility Act of 1996[edit]

The Land Disposal Program Flexibility Act of 1996 allowed some flexibility in the procedures for land disposal of certain wastes. For example, a waste is not subject to land disposal restrictions if it is sent to an industrial wastewater treatment facility, a municipal sewage treatment plant, or is treated in a "zero discharge" facility.[30]

Treatment, storage, and disposal facility permits[edit]

Treatment, storage, and disposal facilities (TSDFs) manage hazardous waste under RCRA Subtitle C and generally must have a permit in order to operate. While most facilities have RCRA permits, some continue to operate under what is called "interim status." Interim status requirements appear in 40 CFR Part 265.[31]

The permitting requirements for TSDFs appear in 40 CFR Parts 264 and 270.[32] TSDFs manage (treat, store, or dispose) hazardous waste in units that may include: container storage areas, tanks, surface impoundments, waste piles, land treatment units, landfills, incinerators, containment buildings, and/or drip pads. The unit-specific permitting and operational requirements are described in further detail in 40 CFR Part 264, Subparts J through DD.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ United States. Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Pub. L.Tooltip Public Law (United States) 94–580, 90 Stat. 2795, 42 U.S.C. § 6901 et seq., October 21, 1976.
  2. ^ a b "EPA History: Resource Conservation and Recovery Act". Washington, DC: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 2018-08-08.
  3. ^ a b c d Horinko, Marianne, Cathryn Courtin. “Waste Management: A Half Century of Progress.” EPA Alumni Association. March 2016.
  4. ^ Electronic Code of Federal Regulations (e-CFR) (1998). "40 CFR Subchapter I - SOLID WASTES ."
  5. ^ EPA (2011). "Hazardous Waste Regulations."
  6. ^ United States. Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (1976-10-21). Subtitle D—State or Regional Solid Waste Plans. Section 4003. "Minimum Requirements for Approval of Plans." 42 U.S.C. § 6943
  7. ^ EPA (1979-09-13). "Criteria for Classification of Solid Waste Disposal Facilities and Practices; Final rule." Federal Register, 44 FR 53438
  8. ^ "Municipal Solid Waste". EPA. 2016-03-29.
  9. ^ a b "Special Wastes". Hazardous Waste. EPA. 2018-11-29.
  10. ^ a b United States. Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments of 1984. Pub. L.Tooltip Public Law (United States) 98–616, 98 Stat. 3224, November 8, 1984.
  11. ^ EPA (2011). "Overview Of The Federal UST Program."
  12. ^ EPA (2010). "FY 2009 Annual Report On The Underground Storage Tank Program." Document no. EPA-510-R-10-001.
  13. ^ "Learn About Underground Storage Tanks". EPA. 2017-04-11.
  14. ^ Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986, Pub. L.Tooltip Public Law (United States) 99–499, 100 Stat. 1696. October 17, 1986.
  15. ^ "Leaking Underground Storage Tank Trust Fund". EPA. 2018-11-27.
  16. ^ Supervisors' Safety Manual (9th ed.). Itasca, IL: National Safety Council. 1997. ISBN 978-0-87912-197-6.
  17. ^ "Chemicals Stored in USTs: Characteristics and Leak Detection". Washington, DC: EPA Risk Reduction Engineering Laboratory. 1991. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  18. ^ "Medical Waste". EPA. 2017-11-07.
  19. ^ United States. Solid Waste Disposal Amendments of 1980. Pub. L.Tooltip Public Law (United States) 96–482, October 12, 1980.
  20. ^ RCRA sec. 3001(b)(3)(A), 42 U.S.C. § 6921(b)(3)(A); sec. 3001(b)(2)(A), 42 U.S.C. § 6921(b)(2)(A)
  21. ^ Luther, Linda (2013-08-06). Background on and Implementation of the Bevill and Bentsen Exclusions in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act: EPA Authorities to Regulate "Special Wastes" (Report). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Congressional Research Service. R43149.
  22. ^ EPA. "Hazardous and Solid Waste Management System; Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals From Electric Utilities." Federal Register, 80 FR 21301, April 17, 2015.
  23. ^ EPA. "Hazardous and Solid Waste Management System: Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals From Electric Utilities; Amendments to the National Minimum Criteria (Phase One, Part One)." 83 FR 36435, July 30, 2018.
  24. ^ Eilperin, Juliet; Dennis, Brady (2018-07-17). "EPA eases rules on how coal ash waste is stored across U.S." The Washington Post.
  25. ^ Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, et al. v. EPA, 901 F.3d 414 (D.C. Cir. 2018).
  26. ^ "DC Circuit Rules EPA Dropped Ball on Coal Ash Storage Rules". Courthouse News Service. 2018-08-22.
  27. ^ EPA. "Hazardous and Solid Waste Management System: Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals From Electric Utilities; A Holistic Approach to Closure Part A: Deadline To Initiate Closure." Proposed rule. Federal Register, 84 FR 65941. 2019-12-02.
  28. ^ Smith-Schoenwalder, Cecelia (2019-11-04). "EPA Moves to Rollback Coal Power Plant Waste Rules". U.S. News.
  29. ^ United States. Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980. Pub. L.Tooltip Public Law (United States) 96–510, 94 Stat. 2767, 42 U.S.C. § 9601 et seq., December 11, 1980.
  30. ^ United States. Land Disposal Program Flexibility Act of 1996. Pub. L.Tooltip Public Law (United States) 104–119 (text) (PDF), 110 Stat. 830, 42 U.S.C. § 6924. March 26, 1996.
  31. ^ EPA. "Part 265 – Interim Status Standards For Owners And Operators Of Hazardous Waste Treatment, Storage, And Disposal Facilities." 40 CFR 265.
  32. ^ EPA. "Part 264 – Standards For Owners And Operators Of Hazardous Waste Treatment, Storage, And Disposal Facilities." 40 CFR 264.
    "Part 270 – EPA Administered Permit Programs: The Hazardous Waste Permit Program ." Archived 2010-08-28 at the Wayback Machine 40 CFR 270.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]