THE Resource Conservation and Recovery Act - the federal law that regulates hazardous waste - has fostered little conservation or recovery. Not that it hasn't had a major impact on environmental quality. But it has done so by strictly regulating waste disposal instead of promoting conservation and reuse of materials.Our industries generate about 275 million tons of hazardous waste each year. When I ran the federal hazardous-waste program from 1985 to 1989, I devised rules for safely disposing of hazardous wastes. The essential regulatory program is now well established. Congress is considering ways to upgrade and improve the law, first enacted in 1976 and last revised in 1984. So this is the time to focus new attention on the original purpose of the statute. Pollution prevention is the newest buzzword of environmental-protection professionals. The term means producing less waste and reusing resources wherever it makes sense. It is synonymous with the mid-1970s notion of resource conservation and recovery: Waste less and find new ways to use materials more than once. Instead of spending billions of dollars to manage the disposal of hazardous wastes, the prevention philosophy calls for manufacturers to develop new production processes that simply don't generate hazardous waste. Hazardous wastes out of sight are not necessarily out of mind. Ask anyone responsible for a multi-million-dollar cleanup of groundwater at a Superfund site. When introduced as something called "waste minimization" in the mid-1980s, pollution prevention was greeted enthusiastically by environmentalists, but skeptically elsewhere. Since that time, however, it has been finding its way into the mainstream of corporate culture. Senior executives at some of the nation's largest manufacturering companies now realize that throwing away "wastes" often amounts to wasting resources. The 3M Company's "Pollution Prevention Pays" program is well known. Chevron Corporation has a successful hazardous-waste minimization program. Monsanto has committed itself to reducing toxic emissions by 90 percent using improved manufacturing techniques. Other new converts are stepping forward. There are two direct beneficiaries of pollution prevention. One is the corporate bottom line: Efficient manufacturing processes mean energy savings, lower unit production costs, and reduced long-term liability. The other is the environment: Fewer pollutants are available to enter the air, water, or land. Those wastes that are generated can be used as feedstocks for new products or as other energy resources. There are some excellent examples of industries practicing pollution prevention. A number of manufacturers used to use mercury in their products. Makers of dry cell batteries and certain paints have eliminated the persistently toxic metal from their products altogether. A good example of resource recovery is found in the cement industry. Cement manufacturers are using spent solvents and other combustible hazardous wastes from industries as a resource. Wastes are burned as fuel in high-temperature cement furnaces as an alternative to more costly coal. The process reduces the cost of cement production and prevents pollution by removing hazardous constituents from the waste stream. OBVIOUSLY, pollution prevention is not the only answer to the hazardous-waste challenge confronting American industry. Prevention alone will not solve the problems caused by the vast quantities of hazardous waste we generate. But it will help. With top executives at a number of Fortune 500 companies already practicing prevention, more companies can be expected to join forces. Some will have gained "environmental religion" as a result of a bad experience with Superfund. Others will simply recognize that today's economic realities are no longer tolerant of waste. Environmentalists are still advocates. Groups as diverse as the Conservation Foundation and the Environmental Defense Fund support the approach taken to date. And the American Institute of Chemical Engineers has opened a Center for Waste Reduction Technologies. Government is also promoting pollution prevention from the very top. Last November President Bush set the pace when he declared that traditional approaches to pollution control are no longer adequate. "We need new policies, technologies, and processes that prevent or minimize pollution - that stop it from being created in the first place." Bush's Environmental Protection Agency chief, William K. Reilly, has echoed that sentiment. In a recent speech to the National Press Club, he called for "a national effort to prevent pollution" as part of an overall strategy to "rethink the environmental agenda" as we move toward the next century. Let's hope that Congress was listening to those words. Pollution prevention can become a more important feature of our country's approach to environmental protection. And the original goals of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act can move again to center stage.