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The term cradle–to-grave refers to an environmental policy of managing hazardous industrial wastes from their point of generation (cradle) to their final disposal location (grave). The cradle-to-grave provisions for managing hazardous waste are found in Subtitle C of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which regulates the generation, transportation, storage, treatment, and disposal of hazardous wastes. RCRA, enacted in 1976, was a departure from earlier legislation such as the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act, which primarily regulated pollutants at the “end-of-pipe.”
All companies, big and small, generate wastes, ranging from everyday items such as fluorescent lights and batteries to industrial wastes such as paints, plating solutions, and pesticides. In the United States, it was once legal to dispose of hazardous wastes in unlined landfills or dumps, where they often contaminated lakes, streams, and underground aquifers.
RCRA, an extension of the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965, was enacted in response to increasing concerns over the health dangers posed by the disposal of industrial wastes. Its waste management provisions were a departure from other environmental legislation. Its goals are threefold: to make sure that wastes are handled in a manner that protects human health and the environment; to reduce the generation of hazardous waste; and to encourage recycling and conservation of natural resources. RCRA is especially concerned with mitigating the impacts of waste disposal in landfills or dumps, where wastes can seep into groundwater and contaminate drinking water supplies.
There are six basic elements of hazardous waste management under RCRA: (1) generators must identify the types of wastes produced; (2) wastes must be managed safely on site; (3) wastes must be tracked using a manifest system to ensure that wastes reach their final destination; (4) all hazardous waste treatment, storage, and disposal facilities (TSDF) must be permitted to ensure their safe operation; (5) TSDFs must follow U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines for acceptable disposal and treatment options; and (6) generators, transporters, and TSDFs are subject to government enforcement action if regulations are not followed.
A generator must first determine if it has generated a solid waste, defined in part as “any garbage, refuge, sludge … or discarded material” whether or not the waste is in a solid, liquid, or gaseous form. The generator must then determine if it has generated a “hazardous waste.”
A solid waste may be determined to be hazardous if it either exhibits one of four hazardous characteristics (ignitibility, corrosivity, reactivity, or toxicity), or it is on one of four lists of waste. The lists of wastes are referenced as the F-list (nonspecific source wastes), the K-list (specific source wastes), the P-list, and the U-list (wastes from discarded chemicals). Common F-listed wastes are degreasers or cleaning solvents. An example of a K-listed waste is waste from pesticide manufacturing. Pand U-listed wastes are virgin products that have been discarded because they can no longer be used for their intended purpose.
Wastes must be transported using a hazardous waste manifest, which notes the name of the generator, the type of waste generated, the name of the transporter, and the name of the disposal facility. The manifests must be signed at each stage.
To encourage recycling, there are reduced recordkeeping and management requirements for some wastes such as used oil and scrap metal. In addition, large quantity generators of hazardous waste must certify that they have a plan in place to reduce hazardous waste generation.
Congress expanded RCRA in 1984 with the Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments (HSWA). These amendments placed restrictions on the kinds of wastes that could be put in a landfill, specified permitting deadlines for TSDFs, and expanded RCRA’s scope to include small waste generators. It also placed restrictions on the export of hazardous waste, to discourage generators from avoiding stringent U.S. waste disposal requirements.
Congress allows individual states to manage their own hazardous waste program. However, the state’s program must be at least as stringent as the federal program. California and Minnesota are two examples of states that have more stringent waste disposal requirements than the federal government.
- James McCarthy and Mary Tiemann, “Solid Waste Disposal Act/Resource Conservation and Recovery Act “(Congressional Research Service, 2005);
- Robert Percival, Environmental Regulation: Law, Science, and Policy(Aspen Law and Business, 2000);
- S. EPA, “15 Years of RCRA: Building on Our Past to Protect Our Future” (GPO, 2001);
- S. EPA, “RCRA Orientation Manual” (GPO, 1998).