Conserving Natural Resources: Toward a Comprehensive State Solid Waste Recycling Program under the Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act


Americans’ prodigal attitude toward natural resources was born on the bountiful frontier of the New World and nurtured on the exploitation of the Third World. Today, however, spurred by the threat of materials shortages worldwide, there is a developing trend toward conservation in theUnited States. Within this broad movement toward conservation, a particularly strong case exists for solid wastes recycling, for it entails the conservation of land, materials, and energy.

Recognizing the urgent need to reform longstanding solid waste disposal practices and to foster recycling, the Congress enacted the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which President Ford signed into law on October 21, 1976. However, RCRA makes no programmatic demands on the states. RCRA delegates to the states the discretion to develop specific programs to further the Act’s broad policy objectives. While most states have enacted the solid waste plans required by RCRA in order to receive federal aid, few states have actively promoted recycling, and fewer still have enacted coherent, systematic recycling programs.

The states’ failure to achieve the Act’s policy goals is compounded by the paucity of serious analysis of the subject. This analytical poverty is twofold. First, no one has systematically evaluated the efficacy of existing state law. Second, because no one has posited a sound theoretical framework through which to guide state recycling activity, no one has advanced a comprehensive, model state program. The purpose of this Note is to offer an analytical framework through which to scrutinize current state laws and thereby to delineate the elements of a comprehensive, model state program. This Note will utilize an economic framework, because the recycling problem is one involving the misallocation of scarce resources. Specifically, this Note will employ the theory of Pareto optimality as its theoretical framework.

Part One of this Note examines RCRA and the case for state support of recycling. Part Two explicates in detail the elements of Pareto resource optimality. Part Three analyzes the causes of Pareto resource misallocation between recycled and virgin-based materials. Finally, Part Four recommends both supply- and demand-related policies which should comprise an economically optimal, comprehensive state recycling program.

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