How RCRA Has Transformed America: A Photo Blog

By Liz Sundin

When I began working at EPA earlier this year, I’ll admit I knew little about the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Solid waste and hazardous waste were huge terms with very specific parameters that I had trouble wrapping my brain around. However, as my time in the Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery grew, I started to see how RCRA’s various programs permeate so many parts of my everyday life. We’ve ensured our country handles, disposes of and recycles waste properly. This includes making sure hazardous waste is safely handled and managed both here in America and when imported from or exported abroad. We’re also leading the collaborative effort to halve food loss and waste in the U.S. by 2030 and making sure communities have a voice in the permitting process of hazardous waste facilities.

Now I see RCRA everywhere I go. I see it when I walk by our local dry cleaner and realize that my neighborhood is safer because RCRA requires strict handling of waste chemicals. When I pass our community garden’s compost barrel and the recycling cans lined up outside every house on trash day, I think of the program’s focus on sustainably managing materials. My life is affected by RCRA every day, I just never knew it until now.

As we celebrate 40 years of RCRA this month, I want to take us on a walk down memory lane to remind everyone what our country looked like before RCRA. In the 1970s, EPA hired photographers to capture images of environmental challenges around our country; the series was called the Documerica Project. Below are some of the amazing photos from the Documerica Project which show snapshots of our country before the passage of RCRA.

America has always been a nation full of beauty and natural wonders worth protecting.

Utah – Canyonlands National Park, May 1972

Rangeley Lake in the Mountains of Western Maine, Seen from Route 4 June 1973

In the years leading up to the passage of RCRA, Americans began to realize the need for better standards for landfills and pollution to keep our environment safe and clean.

Solid Waste Is Dumped Into Trenches at This Sanitary Landfill April 1972

Litter on Gulf Coast Beach, May 1972

Landfill Operation Is Conducted by the City of New York on the Marshlands of Jamaica Bay. Pollution Hazards and Ecological Damage Have Called Out Strong Opposition May 1973

Dimensions of the Littering Problem Are Suggested by This Heap of Cold Drink Cans, Salvaged by Girl Scouts at Islamorada in the Central Florida Keys. (circa 1975)

Seagulls Scavenge at Croton Landfill Operation along the Hudson River August 1973

Dumping Garbage at the Croton Landfill Operation, August 1973

Open Garbage Dump on Highway 112, North of San Sebastian February 1973

The conditions in the images above motivated concerned citizens, forward thinkers, and business leaders to push for regulations and fight for the passage of RCRA.

Along Route 580, near San Francisco. October 1972

Dumping Prohibition Is Ignored on This Hunter’s Point Creek Adjacent to the John F. Kennedy Airport, May 1973

Cleaning Up the Roadside in Onsetm May 1973

Stacked Cars In City Junkyard Will Be Used For Scrap, August 1973

Young People Filling Bags with Litter, May 1972

Children in Fort Smith Are Learning That Protecting the Environment Will Take More Than Awareness, June 1972

On October 21, 1976, President Ford signed RCRA, ushering in a new era of stricter environmental protections in the handling, management and disposal of waste. From that day forward, we worked to protect human health and the environment.

This is the first part in a three part blog series. Be on the lookout for the next blog discussing what RCRA has achieved in the last 40 years.

For more information on RCRA, visit www.epa.gov/rcra

Follow our RCRA 40th Campaign on social media: #ProtectPreventPreserve

About the author: Liz Sundin is a Public Affairs Specialist in EPA’s Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery.

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