U.S. Recycling Policy: 50 State Strategies Under A Federal Umbrella

In the U.S., the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) regulates what is permitted in landfills nationwide. There are over 1,250 landfill locations in the U.S., and beyond a few national bans on materials each state is free to create laws that specify what materials must be recycled and what cannot be accepted at landfills.

The RCRA established universal bans to prevent certain hazardous materials from accidentally entering the environment. It also sets out uniform, satisfactory operating standards and provides for monitoring the environment around landfills to identify groundwater contamination and other impacts. The RCRA became law in 1976 and ended the dumping of hazardous waste at local landfills, enforced clean-up of contaminated land, and aimed to minimize waste.

Thanks to the RCRA, hazardous waste must be handled by hazardous disposal locations, including safely handling and transporting the materials for processing. Landfill operators must follow RCRA guidelines during the lifetime of a facility and for years after it is closed.

What can’t be dumped in landfills anywhere in the United States:

  • Medical waste
  • Oil-based paint
  • Explosives
  • Motor oil and fuels
  • Items containing certain heavy metals

Unfortunately, at this time, the RCRA does not govern CO2 and methane emissions from landfills, which are a major source of greenhouse gasses. Landfills account for 14% of U.S. methane emissions annually, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

What is medical waste?

Medical waste originates in doctors’ offices and hospitals and contains possible traces of blood, bodily fluids, or other things that could carry infections. The most common medical waste you might have in your home is needles. For most homes, medical waste is not a daily concern. Still, households where people with diabetes live, for example, do need to collect sharps and other medical waste for proper disposal.

Why are heavy metals regulated?

Certain heavy metals, such as mercury, are highly toxic to humans. Just a small amount ingested can cause organ damage and sickness, and many are suspected to be carcinogens. The most common harmful heavy metals are arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, and mercury. The RCRA regulates how they must be handled, transported, and disposed of to prevent heavy metals from entering the environment.

Heavy metals can contaminate soil, leaving a toxic legacy for decades or centuries. Chromium, for example, can poison the ground, preventing anything from growing. It’s essential to prevent heavy metals from entering waterways to protect public safety and nature.

Protecting our lands

The RCRA’s goal is to protect the health of land and people. Limiting pollutants in the soil and water surrounding disposal sites is a step in the right direction. one the country took almost 50 years ago. The next step is the development of recycling standards each state must follow.

Show your representatives that this matters to you by writing letters, voting for extended producer responsibility laws that provide funding for local infrastructure, and living sustainably. Every voice raised helps.

Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a comprehensive update of Earth911’s guide state landfill and recycling laws.

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