Regulatory Framework in the United States

During the course of the 20th century, especially following World War II, the United States experienced unprecedented economic growth. Much of the growth was fueled by rapid and increasingly complex industrialization. With advances in manufacturing and chemical applications also came increases in the volume and, in many cases, the toxicity of generated wastes. Furthermore, few, if any, controls or regulations were in place concerning the handling of toxic materials or the disposal of waste products. The continued industrial activity led to several high-profile examples of detrimental environmental consequences resulting from these uncontrolled activities. Finally, several forms of intervention, both in the form of government regulation and citizen action, occurred in the early 1970s. Ultimately, several regulations were promulgated on the state and federal levels to ensure the safety of public health and the environment. For waste materials, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), enacted by the United States Congress in 1976 and amended in 1984, provides a comprehensive framework for properly managing hazardous and non-hazardous solid wastes in the United States. RCRA stipulates broad and general legal objectives while mandating the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA)  to develop specific regulations to implement and enforce the law. States and local governments can either adopt the federal regulations or they may develop and enforce more stringent regulations than those specified in RCRA. Similar regulations have been developed or are being developed worldwide to manage waste similarly in other countries.

The broad goals of RCRA include (1) the protection of public health and the environment from the hazards of waste disposal; (2) the conservation of energy and natural resources; (3) the reduction or elimination of waste; and (4) the assurance that wastes are managed in an environmentally-sound manner (e.g., the remediation of waste which may have spilled, leaked, or been improperly disposed of). It should be noted here that the RCRA focuses only on active and future facilities and does not address abandoned or historical sites. These types of environmentally impacted sites are managed under a different regulatory framework, known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) of 1980, more commonly known as “Superfund.”

Solid Waste Regulations

RCRA defines solid waste as any garbage or refuse, sludge from a wastewater treatment plant, water supply treatment plant, or air pollution control facility and other discarded material, including solid, liquid, semi-solid, or contained gaseous material resulting from industrial, commercial, mining, and agricultural operations, and from community activities. In general, solid waste can be categorized as either non-hazardous waste or hazardous waste.

Non-hazardous solid waste can be trash or garbage generated from residential households, offices, and other sources. Generally, these materials are classified as municipal solid waste (MSW). Alternatively, industrial solid waste is collectively known as non-hazardous materials that result from producing goods and products by various industries (e.g., coal combustion residues, mining wastes, cement kiln dust). Because they are classified as non-hazardous materials, many municipal solid and industrial waste components have potential for recycling and reuse. Significant efforts are underway by both government agencies and industry to advance these objectives.

Hazardous waste generated by many industries and businesses (e.g., dry cleaners and auto repair shops) is constituted of materials that are dangerous or potentially harmful to human health and the environment. Waste is classified as hazardous if it exhibits at least one of these four characteristics:

  • Ignitability refers to the creation of fires under certain conditions, including spontaneously combustible materials or those with a flash point less than 140 F.
  • Corrosivity refers to the capability to corrode metal containers, including materials with a pH less than or equal to 2 or greater than or equal to 12.5.
  • Reactivity refers to materials susceptible to unstable conditions such as explosions, toxic fumes, gases, or vapors when heated, compressed, or mixed with water under normal conditions.
  • Toxicity is substances that can induce harmful or fatal effects when ingested, absorbed, or inhaled.

Radioactive Waste Regulations

Although non-hazardous waste and hazardous waste are regulated by RCRA, nuclear or radioactive waste is regulated under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in the United States.

Radioactive wastes are characterized according to four categories: (1) High-level waste (HLW), (2) Transuranic waste (TRU), (3) Low-level waste (LLW), and (4) Mill tailings. Various radioactive wastes decay at different rates, but health and environmental dangers due to radiation may persist for hundreds or thousands of years.

High-level waste is typically liquid or solid waste resulting from government defense-related activities, nuclear power plants, and spent fuel assemblies. These wastes are extremely dangerous due to their heavy concentrations of radionuclides, and humans must not come into contact with them.

Transuranic waste mainly results from reprocessing spent nuclear fuels and the fabrication of nuclear weapons for defense projects. They are characterized by moderately penetrating radiation and a decay time of approximately twenty years until safe radionuclide levels are achieved. Following the passage of a reprocessing ban in 1977, most of this waste generation ended. Even though the ban was lifted in 1981, Transuranic waste remains rare because reprocessing nuclear fuel is expensive. Further, political and social pressures minimize these activities because the extracted plutonium may be used to manufacture nuclear weapons.

Low-level wastes include much of the remainder of radioactive waste materials. They constitute over 80 percent of the volume of all nuclear wastes but only about two percent of total radioactivity. Low-level waste includes all of the previously cited sources of High-level waste and Transuranic waste, plus wastes generated by hospitals, industrial plants, universities, and commercial laboratories. Low-level waste is much less dangerous than High-level waste, and NRC regulations allow some very low-level wastes to be released into the environment. Low-level wastes may also be stored or buried until the isotopes decay to low enough so they may be disposed of as non-hazardous waste. Low-level waste disposal is managed at the state level, but the USEPA and NRC establish requirements for operation and disposal. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) is responsible for setting the standards for workers exposed to radioactive materials.

International Regulatory Framework

The 1992 Basel Convention

The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal first came into force in 1992. The Convention puts an onus on exporting countries to ensure that hazardous wastes are managed in an environmentally sound manner in the country of import. The Basel Convention places obligations on countries that are party to the Convention. 151 Countries have ratified the Basel Convention as of December 2002. These have obligations to:

  • Minimize generations of hazardous waste;
  • Ensure adequate disposal facilities are available;
  • Control and reduce international movements of hazardous waste;
  • Ensure environmentally sound management of waste; and
  • Prevent and punish illegal traffic.

The 1995 Waigani Convention

The Basel Convention establishes a global control system for shipping hazardous waste from one country to another. States that are Parties to the Convention must not trade hazardous wastes with non-Parties. Still, an exception to this is provided for in Article 11 of the Convention, whereby Parties may enter into agreements or arrangements with other Parties or non-Parties.

These agreements or arrangements can also set out controls different from those prescribed by the Convention itself, provided such controls do not reduce the level of environmental protection intended by the Convention.

The Waigani Convention is to ban the importation of hazardous and radioactive wastes into Forum Island Countries and to control the transboundary movement and management of hazardous wastes within the South Pacific Region. This agreement was enforced in October 2001. The Convention also enables Australia to receive hazardous wastes exported from South Pacific Forum Island countries that are not Parties to the Basel Convention. There are 24 countries within the coverage area of the Waigani Convention. As of December 2002, ten parties had ratified the Waigani Convention. These were Australia, the Cook Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.


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Introduction to Environmental Sciences and Sustainability Copyright © 2023 by Emily P. Harris is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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