Resource Conservation and Recovery Act

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (“RCRA”) gives the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) the power to control hazardous waste, from the beginning of a process to the end, when it is disposed of. This means that the EPA has a hand in the transportation, storage, and disposal of hazardous waste products. The RCRA also provides guidelines insofar as managing non-hazardous solid wastes. To explore this concept, consider the following Resource Conservation and Recovery Act definition.

Definition of Resource Conservation and Recovery Act


  1. A federal law that dictates how the disposal of hazardous and non-hazardous waste products should be handled.


1976    Congressional Act

What is the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act was enacted by Congress as a way to address the issues that were plaguing the U.S. insofar as its increasing volume of hazardous waste output by both businesses and communities. For example, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act established goals that would help the U.S. protect the natural environment and the health of its citizens from the potential ravages of improper waste disposal.

Additionally, the RCRA aims to reduce the amount of waste that was being generated through source reduction and recycling. Further, the RCRA works to ensure that resources are being properly conserved, and that waste is being disposed of in an environmentally sound manner.

History of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act

History of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act begins in a United States in which the disposal of waste generated by public and private companies went unregulated. It was common for waste to be disposed of by burning, burying, or storing it, or even shipping it offsite for it to meet a similar end. No records were kept on what was done with the waste. Not only was this incredibly damaging to the environment, but because no records were kept, it was impossible for property owners to know what chemicals were polluting their property from events that transpired on the land before they even purchased it.

There were several reasons as to why the pollution was allowed in the first place. One of the major reasons was that it was a commonly held belief that the regulation of waste was up to state and local governments to decide, rather than the federal government. This lack of communication resulted in inconsistent regulations throughout the country. The fact that hazardous waste was permitted to be transported between states, as well as the natural flow of pollutants across state lines, made it impossible to effectively regulate waste disposal methods.

What was worse was that, in the 1960s, the volume and toxicity of hazardous waste products began to increase. It got to the point where the amount of garbage created by individuals increased 60 percent over a 10-year period (1950 – 1960). In 1965, it was concluded that over four million chemicals were being produced in the United States. Such a high volume of chemicals leads to a significantly high level of toxic waste.

Solid Waste Disposal Act

The rise in the number of chemicals the U.S. was producing lead to the passage of the Solid Waste Disposal Act (“SWDA”) in 1965. While the SWDA did not concentrate on the regulation of waste, it instead focused on the use of training and research to identify ways to manage waste. It also established minimum standards for local landfills. In 1970, the SWDA was amended by the Resource Recovery Act (“RRA”). The RRA emphasized the ability to recover usable energy and materials from solid waste, as opposed to just blind disposal of it.

In 1976, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act was passed as an amendment to the SWDA. The RCRA is credited with finally and effectively regulating hazardous waste in the U.S. Under the RCRA, federal regulations now dictated how hazardous waste was to be generated, transported, and disposed of. States were permitted to regulate these processes if that state was authorized to manage the RCRA. By 1983, open dumping of hazardous waste was to be prohibited in its entirety.

Objectives of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act

There are three main objectives of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Those objectives are:

  • To protect the health of the environment, and the humans that live in it
  • To reduce or eliminate the generation of hazardous waste
  • To conserve energy and natural resources

The RCRA covers the management of hazardous wastes from “cradle to grave.” What this means is that the RCRA manages how hazardous wastes are handled from the point of origin (“cradle”) all the way through to the point of final disposal (“grave”). There are several major departments in charge of these processes, and all of them have specific responsibilities as provided for in the RCRA:

  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): The EPA provides guidelines and regulations insofar as how solid and hazardous wastes should be handled so as to meet the objectives of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The EPA oversees and approves the development of plans with regard to state waste management, and it also funds research with regard to solid waste.
  • Department of Commerce (DOC): The DOC encourages the marketing of resource recovery technologies that have been proven to work and that can further the objectives of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
  • Department of Energy (DOE): The DOE is in charge of all activities related to the research and development of new methods for recovering energy from waste materials. This can be thought of as the recycling of waste materials.
  • Department of the Interior (DOI): The DOI is in charge of any issues associated with mineral waste, including the recovery of metals and minerals from waste and the methods involved with stabilizing waste products from mining activities.

According to the RCRA, a material cannot be declared a hazardous waste unless it is a solid waste. For example, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act says that what makes solid waste hazardous is if it is a mixture containing one or more known hazardous wastes, or if it exhibits one or more traits of hazardous waste, such as reactivity or toxicity. Even when hazardous wastes are mixed with non-hazardous wastes, the mixture must be treated as hazardous and managed accordingly.

However, a hazardous waste is only hazardous for as long as it exhibits a hazardous waste trait. This means that if a solid waste that was once determined to have toxicity no longer exhibits toxicity, then it no longer needs to be classified as a hazardous material.

Resource Conservation and Recovery Act Example Involving Liquid Mercury

An example of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act in action can be found in a case involving the illegal storage of a hazardous material. In September of 2004, vandals broke into the Southern Union Company, a natural gas company with a storage facility located in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and discovered liquid mercury. The vandals ended up spilling the liquid mercury, both on the premises and around a nearby apartment complex. The spill was not discovered for several weeks, and those living in the apartment complex were forced to relocate for two months while the mercury was cleaned up.

Ultimately, Southern Union was indicted on a charge of illegally storing mercury without a permit. At the conclusion of the trial in the matter, the jury convicted Southern Union, but the jury was unable to determine for how long the mercury had been illegally stored. At sentencing, the district court levied the maximum fine of $50,000 upon Southern Union for each day of their violation. The maximum fine was determined to be just over $38 million by the U.S. Office of Probation when the $50,000 fine was multiplied by 762 – the number of days referenced in the indictment.

Southern Union argued that the jury should have determined an exact number of days that the company had illegally stored the mercury before making such a decision. This was because such a determination meant everything insofar as the maximum criminal penalty that could be levied against Southern Union for such a charge. Southern Union therefore believed that the imposition of a $38 million fine violated its right under the Fifth Amendment to criminal due process, as well as its right to a trial by jury as dictated by the Sixth Amendment.

The district court ultimately decided that a fact that has the power to increase the penalty for a crime does not need to be tried by a jury if that penalty is a fine. Southern Union appealed the district court’s decision, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision. Southern Union then brought its case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Court reversed the Court of Appeals decision and remanded the case, holding that as per the Sixth Amendment, the determination of any fact that can increase a defendant’s maximum sentence should be left to the discretion of the jury. The government argued that a fine is not as serious of a sentence as incarceration, and therefore a jury is not required to make such a determination. The Court, however, disagreed, its reason being that if a fine was so insignificant, then the right to a jury trial would not even be an issue.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Source Reduction – A set of activities designed to reduce the volume, mass, or toxicity of a hazardous material throughout its life cycle.