Encouraging Americans to Reuse, Recycle, and Conserve Natural Resources

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When Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) in 1976, it charged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with ensuring the safe disposal and management of municipal and industrial waste, and it broadly championed a new ethic of resource conservation. During the first two decades of RCRA, EPA, in partnership with the states, focused primarily on establishing a sound hazardous and solid waste management system. More recently, EPA and the states have begun to focus on the goals of resource and energy conservation— that is, on putting “resource conservation” back into RCRA.

The general principles underlying these goals were sketched out in the report Beyond RCRA: Waste and Materials Management in the Year 2020 (EPA530-R-02-009). In 2002, EPA put these principles into practice with the introduction of the Resource Conservation Challenge (RCC).

The RCC asks all Americans to reuse, recycle, and recover used materials; to reduce toxics in products and waste; and to conserve natural resources and energy. Through the RCC, EPA is focusing its efforts on recovering millions of tons of materials—or commodities—that are needlessly disposed of each year, and as a result, the United States is gradually moving from traditional RCRA “cradle-to-grave” waste management to “cradle-to-cradle” materials management.

The RCC brings together a wide array of activities at the federal and state levels. At the federal level, EPA is focusing on four priority areas:

1. municipal solid waste (MSW) recycling;
2. reusing and recycling industrial “secondary” materials;
3. reducing priority and toxic chemicals in products and waste; and
4. safe life-cycle management of electronics.

While the general management of the RCC resides within EPA headquarters, the agency’s regions are essential to its successful implementation. For example, EPA Region 5, which covers Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin, is leading efforts to promote reuse and recycling of industrial secondary materials.

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