Hazardous waste regulation in the United States under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act has several significant problems. The regulations prioritize risks poorly, failing to set tougher standards for more-hazardous wastes. They have forced firms to spend billions of dollars on diverting waste from disposal on land, without convincing evidence of high health and environmental benefits. Finally, because the regulations raise the cost of legally managing wastes, they may encourage illegal dumping of wastes and thus actually hurt the environment more than they help it.
The program needs fundamental reform. Such reforms would relax the regulations and rely more on economic incentives. Setting up these incentives, however, requires some thought. Hazardous waste policy addresses a wide variety of substances, and its environmental effects depend on how facilities manage their wastes. Thus, traditional incentive policies, such as "green" taxes, must be tailored for this purpose. Taxes should be levied not on the wastes themselves but on the environmental releases from waste management facilities. These taxes would decentralize decisions and, perhaps more important, more clearly link the policy to its environmental goals. A modified deposit/refund (similar to bottle bills) could have similar benefits and would eliminate the policy's incentives for illegal disposal.