Resource Conservation and Recovery Act

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) was enacted in 1976.  RCRA established a system for managing non-hazardous and hazardous solid wastes in an environmentally sound manner.  The Act provides for the management of hazardous wastes from the point of origin to the point of final disposal, ie, “cradle to grave”.  RCRA also promotes resource recovery and waste minimization.

The objectives of RCRA are to:

  • protect human health and the environment
  • reduce or eliminate the generation of hazardous wastes, and
  • conserve energy and natural resources.

RCRA, contains ten subtitles.  The regulatory portion of the law are explained in Subtitle C, Hazardous Waste Management; Subtitle D, State or Regional Solid Waste Plans; Subtitle I, Regulation of Underground Storage Tanks; and Subtitle J, Demonstration Medical Waste Tracking ProgramThe other subtitles provide the legal and administrative structure for achieving the objectives of the law.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Commerce (DOC), the Department of Energy (DOE), and the Department of the Interior (DOI) have specific responsibilities under RCRA. EPA issues guidelines and regulations for proper management of solid and hazardous wastes, oversees and approves the development of state waste management plans.  EPA also provides financial aid to agencies and firms for research on solid waste.  DOC encourages greater commercialization of proven resource recovery technologies.  DOE oversees activities involving research and development of new techniques for producing energy from wastes. DOI oversees mineral waste problems, including recovery of metals and minerals and methods for stabilizing mining wastes.

Under RCRA no material can be a hazardous waste unless it is a solid waste. A solid waste is a hazardous waste if it a mixture containing one or more listed hazardous wastes, or exhibits one or more characteristics of hazardous waste (i.e., ignitability, corrosivity, reactivity, or toxicity).  When wastes which are listed as hazardous wastes are mixed with non hazardous wastes or materials, the mixture must be managed as hazardous waste.  However, a characteristic waste remains hazardous only as long as it exhibits a hazardous characteristic.

Hazardous wastes must be properly identified and managed for the success of the “cradle-to-grave” program. Waste generators must determine if their solid wastes are also hazardous wastes. If the wastes are hazardous, the generator must notify EPA, or an authorized state if appropriate, of their hazardous waste management activities and obtain an EPA identification (ID) number. Generators must manage hazardous wastes in accordance with RCRA generator requirements and, if wastes are accumulated for more than 90 days, obtain a RCRA permit for waste management activities. Generators must also verify that transportation, treatment, storage, and disposal of their wastes are conducted by others with EPA identification numbers who are authorized to manage the wastes.

However, certain waste management units do not require a RCRA permit because their management activities are exempt from permitting. Examples of exempted activities are on-site accumulation of hazardous waste for less than 90 days, totally enclosed treatment, wastewater treatment that only involves tanks that discharge through surface water discharges regulated under the Clean Water Act, and elementary neutralization. 

Before a hazardous waste may be shipped off-site, the generator must determine:

  • whether the waste is a hazardous waste
  • the proper packaging for the hazardous waste, the necessary RCRA and Department of Transportation (DOT) labeling, marking, and placarding requirements; and
  • the information necessary to complete and sign the hazardous waste manifest (which includes both DOT and RCRA shipping paper information) for the waste shipment.

Regulations specifying the documentation required when hazardous waste is to be shipped are described in Subpart B, The Manifest. The manifest must include the following information:

  • name and ID number of generator and facility to which the waste is being sent;
  • DOT description of waste being transported;
  • quantities of waste being transported; and
  • address of the off-site treatment, storage, and disposal facility (TSDF) designated to receive the waste.

The purpose of the manifesting system is to establish accountability for and tracking of hazardous waste shipments.  The manifest is an important feature of RCRA’s “cradle to grave” system.  A generator must keep a copy of each manifest for three years.  The generator must also maintain records and report hazardous waste management activity, including the amount of hazardous waste produced, the transporters of the wastes, and the TSDFs in possession of the hazardous waste.

Moreover, a transporter of hazardous waste must comply with both EPA’s RCRA and DOT’s HMTA (Hazardous Materials Transportation Act)regulations to ensure compliance when transporting hazardous waste.  RCRA requires an owner or operator of a TSDF to obtain a permit to operate.  Subtitle D of RCRA  titled State or Regional Solid Waste Plans requires state  and local governments as the primary planning, regulating, and implementing entities for the management of non-hazardous solid waste (e.g., household and non-hazardous industrial wastes). 

Subtitle I established a program to regulate the three to five million underground storage tanks (USTs) in the United States to prevent their leaking.  Under this subtitle RCRA regulates the storage of a product (e.g., petroleum products, hazardous substances) rather than hazardous waste.  Hazardous substances regulated under Subtitle I include all the hazardous substances (except those regulated as a hazardous waste under Subtitle C of RCRA) defined under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA).

RCRA authorizes states to develop and enforce their own hazardous waste programs in place of the federal program administered by EPA.  States must complete a state program approval process.  State authorization is a rulemaking process through which EPA delegates the primary responsibility for implementing the RCRA hazardous waste program to individual states in lieu of EPA.  State RCRA programs must always be at least as stringent as the federal requirements, but states can adopt more stringent requirements as well.  An authorized state must revise its program to reflect new federal rulemakings as well as any state statutory or regulatory changes that affect the state’s hazardous waste program.


Inside Resource Conservation and Recovery Act