Landfill regulations & compliance efforts

Solid waste regulations in the U.S. have a long history, which is why understanding the regulatory nuances associated with today’s landfills can be a challenge.

© Mohamad Zaki | Adobe Stock

I recently celebrated the birth of my third child. While spending a few days at the hospital with my recovering wife and child, we were given several refresher training sessions, where the nurses and doctors gave detailed instructions related to the care of a newborn child. These instructional sessions were given even though this was our third child. At first, I thought I didn’t need the how-to refreshers on diaper changing, methods and quantities for bottle feedings, safe sleep practices or how to care for a fussy baby. However, as the sessions continued, I learned that while, yes, most topics being presented were generally familiar, some of these procedures had faded from memory or had changed since our last child. By the time we were ready to leave the hospital, I not only welcomed the refreshers, but found them to be essential to our transition home.

I have been an engineer practicing in the solid waste field for 11 years, almost exclusively related to landfill design, permitting and engineering support work. Although immersed in the protocols and regulations of landfills on a daily basis, I admit I was only a child when the modern solid waste regulations in the U.S. were being developed. I think because of this, I lack an appreciation for the process of how these regulations were developed into the current landfill regulations we use today. This realization made me question whether other young professionals in landfill design find themselves with the same lack of understanding.

With this in mind, this article aims to review the intent, purpose and structure of landfill regulations in the U.S. Not only does this research present new information for myself and other young solid waste professionals, but it also serves as a refresher for seasoned veterans—hopefully, as with the instruction following the birth of my third child, the refresher will come in handy.


Following increases in municipal waste generation in the early part of the 20th century, governments and private citizens developed diverse, yet unsophisticated, disposal technologies. The most common disposal methods favored at the time were the use of open dumps and the burning of trash. Also, in the early 20th century, improper waste disposal practices gained increasing attention as a possible cause of disease and became viewed as a public health crisis.

Due to increasing demand for better waste management during the 1960s, the Solid Waste Disposal Act (SWDA) was passed in 1965 under President Lyndon Johnson. The SWDA had the goal of protecting human and environmental health from impacts associated with waste disposal. The SWDA defined solid waste as a local responsibility, promoted advancement of waste management technology and set forth waste management standards.

The SWDA was amended for the first time in 1970 under President Richard Nixon by the Resource Recovery Act (RRA). The RRA amendment called for increased government involvement in waste management, the reduction of waste, improvements in recycling technology and introduced criteria for the disposal of hazardous waste.

The SWDA and the RRA were followed by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) amendment effective Oct. 21, 1976, which was signed into law by President Gerald Ford. RCRA resulted in the most prominent landfill regulations in the country today. RCRA was promulgated after Congress realized that the SWDA was not comprehensive enough. As such, RCRA is viewed as the first set of comprehensive federal solid waste regulations in the U.S.

RCRA was described by the 94th Congress as, “An act to provide technical and financial assistance for the development of management plans and facilities for the recovery of energy and other resources from discarded materials and for the safe disposal of discarded materials, and to regulate the management of hazardous waste.” The goals of RCRA were to protect human health and the environment from the potential hazards of waste disposal, conserve energy and natural resources, and reduce the amount of waste generated.

Additional amendments were passed, including the federal Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments in 1984, which required phasing out land disposal of hazardous waste; the Federal Facility Compliance Act in 1992, which strengthened enforcement of RCRA at federal facilities; and the Land Disposal Program Flexibility Act in 1996, which provided regulatory flexibility for land disposal of certain wastes.

The RCRA focuses only on active and future facilities. It does not address abandoned or historical sites, which are managed under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) passed in 1980, commonly known as Superfund. Other regulations that have a substantial impact on landfill design include the Clean Air Act (CAA) and the Clean Water Act (CWA). However, these other regulations are not addressed by this article.

© Dalibor Danilovic | Adobe Stock


Regardless of the acts and legislative amendments passed before or after RCRA in 1976, solid waste regulations used in practice today are often associated with RCRA. RCRA is broken down into 10 parts, which include:

  • Subtitle A: General Provisions;
  • Subtitle B: Office of Solid Waste, Authorities of the Administrator;
  • Subtitle C: "Cradle to Grave" Hazardous Waste Requirements;
  • Subtitle D: Nonhazardous Solid Wastes;
  • Subtitle E: Department of Commerce Responsibilities;
  • Subtitle F: Federal Responsibilities;
  • Subtitle G: Miscellaneous Provisions;
  • Subtitle H: Research, Development, Demonstration and Information;
  • Subtitle I: Underground Storage Tanks; and
  • Subtitle J: Medical Waste.

Regulations applicable to landfills fall largely within the Subtitle D portion of the regulations. Subtitle D generally covers solid wastes not regulated under Subtitle C. Subtitle D waste includes many different waste categories, including municipal waste, “special” exempt wastes, industrial manufacturing wastes, agricultural wastes, construction and demolition debris, municipal combustion ash, and pollution control residuals.

These waste streams vary greatly in chemical composition and physical form. For example, in the manufacturing sector, wastes can originate from a variety of sources, such as the pulp and paper industry, transportation equipment and organic chemical manufacturing, and they can be in the form of solids, sludges, wastewaters or even contained gases. Some of these waste streams are regulated by statutes other than RCRA.

Under RCRA’s Subtitle D, states were encouraged to develop comprehensive plans to manage nonhazardous industrial solid waste and municipal solid waste. The state plans were to be at least as stringent as the federal regulations. Today, all states have comprehensive plans to manage solid waste. Many of the constraints addressed during the landfill design phase are often referenced through these state-level regulations.

RCRA also sets design and operating criteria for municipal solid waste landfills and other solid waste disposal facilities. Again, these regulations at the state level are at least as stringent as the federal regulations, but are dictated by states.

The regulations stemming from the RCRA are codified in Title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations as parts 239 through 282. Regulations associated with nonhazardous waste disposal largely fall in Part 258. Part 258 is broken down into the following subparts:

  • Subpart A: General
  • Subpart B: Location Restrictions
  • Subpart C: Operating Criteria
  • Subpart D: Design Criteria
  • Subpart E: Groundwater Monitoring and Corrective Action
  • Subpart F: Closure and Postclosure Care
  • Subpart G: Financial Assurance Criteria

Many of the state regulations are set up in a similar structure, often with more stringent requirements spread throughout.


Most of the compliance monitoring responsibility under RCRA is delegated to the states and local authorities. EPA provides oversight of compliance monitoring activities in the RCRA program to ensure facilities are properly inspected. Monitoring and compliance efforts are intended to help identify a site's environmental impact, differentiate between a release from a site and from other sources, determine the magnitude and extent of a release and assess the effectiveness of ongoing cleanup activities.

Through the requirements outlined in the RCRA regulations, complex compliance and reporting obligations have been established. The complexity of these requirements is often exacerbated for operations across multiple sites and across multiple states.

To aid in these compliance efforts, many companies have turned to Geographic Information System (GIS)-based compliance tracking systems. These systems are set up to keep data over time for individual monitoring points. Trends can then be easily analyzed, and reporting forms can also be generated from the GIS-based system with minimal effort. This type of system also allows for seamless transitions with changes in personnel. Many companies view this type of compliance tracking system as an essential part of the landfill business.

An effective GIS-based compliance system should include the following:

  • The ability to review data with a smartphone or web application;
  • The ability to track and analyze environmental health and safety data;
  • The ability to maintain regulatory calendars and deadlines; and
  • Reporting capabilities.

Solid waste regulations in the U.S. have a long history, and today’s regulations vary from state to state. Understanding the regulatory nuances across multiple states can be challenging. Fortunately, modern tools such as GIS-based compliance systems can make this a little easier on all of us.

Tim Mitchell, P.E., is a project manager for Pittsburgh-based Civil & Environmental Consultants Inc. (CEC). Tim can be reached at

Read Next

Permission Granted

March 2018
Explore the March 2018 Issue

Check out more from this issue and find you next story to read.

Share This Content