Celebrating 40 Years of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act

Forty years ago, our nation looked much different than it does today. There were few protections in place to safeguard people and our environment from the mismanagement of solid and hazardous waste…and it showed.

On October 21, 1976, President Ford signed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) into law. And from that day, EPA and countless others have worked to protect the health of communities by promoting resource conservation and implementing safe waste management practices to ensure a cleaner environment for future generations.

What does RCRA do?  In a nutshell, it keeps our country safe and healthy by:

  • Protecting our communities and the environment from the threats of solid and hazardous waste;
  • Cleaning up land and water; and
  • Conserving resources.

For the past 40 years, we’ve worked to provide safe and sustainable solutions that meet the needs of businesses and communities. We’ve empowered citizens by delivering information and opportunities that enable communities to participate in the decision-making processes. Each time a new problem presents itself, the RCRA program has found flexible and common sense ways to address it. Some of those successes include:

  • Managing 2.5 billion tons of solid, industrial and hazardous waste every year, and providing opportunities to reduce or avoid greenhouse gas emissions through material and land management practices.
  • Cleaning up and restoring 18 million acres of contaminated lands, nearly equal to the size of South Carolina.
  • Raising the national recycling rate to 34 percent.
  • Providing grants to states and tribes to support their hazardous waste management programs and address numerous issues, including open dumps, household hazardous waste collection and education activities.
  • Collaborating internationally on resource conservation and waste management issues in the interconnected global economy of our modern day world.

It’s surreal to me to imagine our country before RCRA, with lifeless waterways and burning trash. I think the biggest measure of our success is that reminders of RCRA have become expected parts of our everyday lives – such as recycling bins at the curbside and hazardous waste trucks on the highway.

As the world around us changes, so does the RCRA program. We are looking to the future and finding ways to reduce waste at its source. Our Sustainable Materials Management program protects people and the environment by managing materials sustainably throughout their life cycles and efficiently using natural resources. Benefits include employment opportunities, social benefits and sustainable green growth.

This approach has gone global and is more critical than ever.  Global material resource use during the 20th century rose at about twice the rate of population.  One half to three quarters of annual raw material inputs to industrial economies are returned as waste to the environment within a year.  This results in significant environmental impacts – including 42% of greenhouse gases in the US due to materials flows in the US economy.  A life cycle approach to sustainably use materials is viewed as critical to integrate economic growth and climate change strategies globally by such organizations as World Economic Forum, Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development and United Nations Environmental Program.

Forty years ago, President Ford and a nation demanding change brought RCRA to life and put our country on the path towards a safe and sustainable environment for all. We, at EPA, commit to continue the essential work of RCRA and create innovative solutions to the challenges of the future. Together, we are 40 years stronger.

Read more on RCRA’s Critical Mission and the Path Forward
To learn more about the history of RCRA, check out our RCRA Timeline
Follow the RCRA 40th anniversary campaign on social media: #ProtectPreventPreserve

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