In past centuries, waste disposal was up to the individual or the local departments of health and sanitation. There was little or no distinction made in the type of waste, nor was consideration taken regarding potential health, safety, or aesthetic consequences. At this time, disposal was mainly through incineration, landfilling, or disposing into rivers and streams. It was assumed, for example, that the water sources would dissipate the waste and render it harmless.

However, grow­ing urban populations and increasing manufacturing and industrial processes made managing waste a significant endeavor. The issue was brought to national attention when the severely polluted Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio caught fire in 1969. Since that time, waste management within the United States has changed considerably.

Although waste management in the United States is decentralized and diverse, many of the Federal waste laws over the past 30 years establish minimum standards which are often incorporated into state and local laws or regulations. And, while states have the right to create more stringent standards, they cannot lessen the requirements. Federal waste laws are usually enforced by state and local governments with close federal oversight, primarily by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The goals of waste management are to minimize waste quantity, reduce the amount of raw materials consumed, dispose of non-hazardous waste cost-effectively, and dispose of hazardous waste with minimal risk to human health and the environ­ment. Communities use a variety of methods to manage wastes depending on the type of waste involved. Methods used include landfilling, incineration, and composting, with both upstream and downstream separation of usable materials for recycling. There is also an increasing interest and awareness in the reuse of materials, as well as in source reduction through product redesign and efficient packaging. Together these are often referred to as the '3Rs"—reduce, reuse, and recycle.