Solid Waste Disposal Act (1965)

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Solid Waste Disposal Act (1965)

Eugene H. Robinson, Jr.

The Solid Waste Disposal Act (SWDA) (P.L. 89-272, 79 Stat. 992) became law on October 20, 1965. In its original form, it was a broad attempt to address the solid waste problems confronting the nation through a series of research projects, investigations, experiments, training, demonstrations, surveys, and studies. The decade following its passage revealed that the SWDA was not sufficiently structured to resolve the growing mountain of waste disposal issues facing the country. As a result, significant amendments were made to the act with the passage of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 (RCRA), which became law on October 21, 1976. The SWDA as amended in 1976 is more commonly known as the RCRA.

In the statute's findings, Congress indicated two reasons for the necessity of the SWDA: first, advancements in technology resulted in the creation of vastly more amounts and types of wastes than in the past; and second, rapid growth in the nation's metropolitan areas had caused these areas to experience significant financial, management, and technical problems associated with waste disposal. At the time SWDA was passed, there were ten other pending bills related to the subject of solid wastes and their potential impacts to public health. Besides totally revamping the SWDA's solid waste program in 1976, the RCRA also created a national "cradle to grave" hazardous waste management tracking program to deal with the nation's annual production of three to four billion tons of discarded material.

The SWDA was passed during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. The Johnson Administration actively encouraged its passage and the president referred to the act several times in a speech made to Congress where he emphasized the need for legislation to address solid waste disposal. In addition, testimony in favor of the bill was received by Congressional committees from over twenty different entities, including associations, universities, cities, and states.

President Gerald Ford had the privilege of signing the RCRA into law. Though the RCRA was considered a major act of Congress and was passed relatively unopposed, its legislative history is fairly sparse compared to that of other federal legislation.

The most significant interpretation of the RCRA is the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Department of Energy v. Ohio (1992). The Supreme Court ruled that the waiver of sovereign immunity in the RCRA and the Clean Water Act was not clear enough to allow states to impose civil penalties directly, but penalties could be allowed in situations where some type of court order had been issued and later violated.

Besides the RCRA, the SWDA has been significantly amended by the Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments of 1984 (HSWA) and the Federal Facilities Compliance Act of 1992 (FFCA), of which the most significant feature was the federal sovereign immunity waiver with respect to federal, state, and local procedural and substantive requirements relating to the RCRA. This change was Congress's response to the Supreme Court ruling in Doe v. Ohio (1992), and required federal facilities to pay fines and penalties for violations of hazardous and solid waste requirements.

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA, 1980) was not an amendment but did share a close relationship with the SWDA, as amended by the RCRA, in their common goals of protecting human health and the environment from the dangers posed by hazardous waste. Whereas the RCRA was enacted to address concerns at open disposal sites, CERCLA was passed to address past practices at inactive disposal sites.

See also: Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act; Hazarrdous and Solid Waste Amendments of 1984.


Hall, Ridgeway M. Jr., et al. RCRA Hazardous Wastes Handbook, 12th edition. Rockville, MD: Government Institutes, Inc., 2001.

Environment Protection Agency. "Twenty-Five Years of RCRA: Building on Our Past to Protect Our Future." <>.