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Beyond RCRA: Prospects for Waste and Materials Management in the Year 2020 - An Unofficial Executive Summary


Recent trends in the management of solid and hazardous wastes in the U.S. are bright. For instance, uncontrolled dumping of hazardous industrial wastes has decreased dramatically while thousands of contaminated sites are being cleaned up, and productive land uses have been restored and groundwater protected. In 1999 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established a working group with state environmental agencies to explore the longer-term future of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). A roundtable meeting of experts on this subject was convened in Washington, D.C. in September 1999, whose insights were summarized in a separate paper. "Beyond RCRA" follows up this work for the purpose of creatively engaging and stimulating dialogue on the future of our nation's waste management system, by providing a broad outline of this future, and the economic, technological and institutional forces that might shape it.
Trends & Future Directions

  • Resources - the demand for natural resources will continue to grow over the next two decades, which will increase scarcity in some regions and stimulate the development of substitutes. New technologies will change how resources are used and wasted, though it is likely that the effects of technological change on economic and ecological sustainability in this period will be mixed. While advances in energy efficiency and materials usage will decrease waste volumes, other innovations will increase waste generation rates. Consequently, there is a growing need for more sustainable use of material resources.
  • Health and Risk - it is likely that by 2020 advances in chemistry, biology and other fields will have created tens of thousands of new chemical compounds, many of which will be derived from genetically-engineered organisms. Undoubtedly some of these new compounds will have the potential for causing harm to human health and the environment. Techniques for measuring and managing the fate of these chemicals and understanding their effects, however, can also be expected to be much improved for both the general population and sensitive sub-groups such as children and the elderly. Knowledge about the cumulative and synergistic risks to people from exposure to multiple chemicals also will improve, leading to calls for greater action by government agencies and private industry.
  • Industry - due to the variety of trends affecting various industries, the resource use and waste generation patterns of industry will shift with mixed effects on the waste stream and geographically. Industry as a whole will be more efficient and less wasteful, though some level of wastes will assuredly not disappear. It is likely that current distinctions between wastes and materials will become less meaningful, arguing for government policies to promote and reduce unnecessary regulatory constraints on more efficient use of these materials. Waste treatment and disposal technologies can be expected to evolve. These may include the use of chemical markers, sensing and monitoring devices, and/or advanced telecommunications systems to more closely track generation, composition, movement and ultimate disposition of wastes. It is also possible that new technologies or economic forces will enable the recovery of materials from previously-landfilled wastes.
  • Information - further advances in information and communication technologies should be environmentally beneficial with regard to waste and materials management. For example, more sophisticated markets for the buying and trading of recyclable materials between companies and industrial sectors should be facilitated by better information technologies. More information should also enhance the ability of individual consumers to make environmentally-superior choices of services and products.
  • Globalization - the trend toward an increasingly globalized economic system will have important effects on the future of waste and materials management. The freer global movement of capital and money may result in a much more integrated economic system, as well as higher levels of prosperity and consumption worldwide. The environmental consequences of these trends could be both positive and negative. If new approaches to waste and materials management in the U.S. are to be successful they will need to be harmonized or integrated into a more global system for instituting and maintaining environmental protections.
  • Institutions - one result of continued developments in information and telecommunications technologies may be that citizens will be empowered to more directly and effectively influence government decisions on environmental issues. Thus in the future citizens may have more influence on environmental decisions. It is also possible that greater citizen involvement will lead to greater focus and resources devoted to neglected environmental problems, such as waste management practices on Native American lands and remote settlements in Alaska, and reduction of exposure to harmful chemicals in minority or low-income communities (environmental justice).


While the mandates and tools provided to the EPA through RCRA remain valid, it is timely to redefine the specific goals, tools and strategies for achievement of more ambitious waste and materials management targets. Three such goals have been identified, along with accompanying tools and strategies:

Goal 1: Reduce Waste & Increase Efficiency of Resource Use - of particular importance would be to reduce the generation and disposal of industrial wastes, the amount of materials used, and to extend product lives. This goal would also require fundamental changes in the waste vs. non-waste regulatory system, so that wastes would be treated more as material commodities with potential uses. An integrated waste/materials management system would need to link or consolidate RCRA with the Toxic Substances Control Act, and to ensure that materials and products that are reused and recycled are safe. Specific tools and strategies to achieve this goal could include economic incentives such as waste generation fees or surcharges; informational tools such as public education and sustainability labeling; and new regulatory strategies such as extended product responsibility requirements and greater reliance on corporate environmental management systems such as ISO 14000.

Goal 2: Prevent Harmful Exposure From the Use of Hazardous Chemicals - if distinctions between wastes and materials become less important in the future, the need to comprehensively control risks from hazardous chemicals and materials throughout their life-cycles would become critical. A more coherent and consistent system for managing chemical risks is thus needed, and could benefit human and environmental health, as well as industry. The tools and strategies for meeting this goal include more information for consumers, liability schemes and insurance instruments, and traditional (though performance-based) regulatory controls.

Goal 3: Manage Wastes & Cleanup Chemical Releases Safely & Environmentally Soundly - a continued need for waste disposal capacity and a waste management system is assumed. The current "cradle-to-grave" approach under RCRA would be supplanted by a system in which "wastes" would be considered as valuable materials unless and until their useful life is expended. Such a system could be called "retirement to grave" waste management. Prevention of future environmental releases would remain a key objective of a future waste management system, and cleanup of existing contamination problems at RCRA-regulated facilities will hopefully be largely completed by 2020. The tools and strategies for meeting this goal include performance-based regulatory controls, tax credits for companies that reduce waste generation, and public disclosure of waste generation to encourage safer practices.


Sustainability is a critical environmental, economic and quality of life issue that this country and others will need to confront over the next two decades. Since the U.S. is the world's largest consumer of goods and services, it has a responsibility to lead toward increasing efficiency of resource use. The promotion of resource conservation along with economic growth will need the full range of innovative tools we can collectively devise. In order to reduce the volume of materials used in creating a sustainable lifestyle and reduce the amount of toxic chemicals in the environment, society needs to focus on materials management as well as proper waste disposal. Creating the required holistic system for waste and materials management will be a complex undertaking, and will require the integration of programs and authorities beyond the bounds of the EPA. We encourage the reader to join the dialogue with answers to the following question: how can appropriate policies regarding resource conservation, materials management, and the proper disposal of wastes (which will hopefully be smaller in volume and less potentially harmful) emerge to meet the challenges of the next quarter century?

Comments and Contacts

All comments on the paper should be submitted by January 31, 2002, and that the words "Beyond RCRA" are on the top of the first page. You may submit comments directly to EPA, either by e-mail to or by regular mail to the following address:

Beyond RCRA White Paper
c/o RCRA Information Center
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (5305G)
1200 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20460

To receive a copy of the 1999 "RCRA Vision Roundtable Meeting Summary" contact David Fagan of the EPA's Office of Solid Waste at

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