Best and Worst States for Waste Management

Trash, including face masks, up against a fence along a sidewalk in Dallas

In recent months, the river of trash has added a new stream. Discarded face masks and disposable gloves are tossed in trash cans or just discarded on sidewalks and streets.

As we mark America Recycles Day on Sunday, this flood of garbage grows larger every year, threatening to swamp cities, states and the U.S. It’s basic math: As the population of the U.S. grows, so does the amount of trash we produce.

In 2017, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. households, businesses and institutions sent nearly 139.6 million tons of waste to landfills, including bottles, cardboard boxes, leftover food, grass clippings, sofas, computers, tires and refrigerators.

Just two years earlier, in 2015, the U.S. produced 2 million fewer tons of landfill trash.

Which states are best at waste management — controlling the flood of garbage recyclables? What can we learn from these states?

We crunched the numbers, and we asked the experts, too.

LawnStarter compared 14 metrics across four categories to determine the best and worst states at managing waste.  

These metrics include the presence of plastic-bag bans, the presence of mandatory recycling laws and the number of recycling facilities per 100,000 residents.

Let’s talk trash — the results from LawnStarter’s study and the insights from a panel of experts, along with a full description of our methodology.

Table of Contents

  1. Key Takeaways
  2. Ask the Experts
  3. Methodology
  4. Why This Study Matters
OVERALL SCOREOVERALL RANKStateState Government Measures RankResource Management RankReuse of Goods RankFacilities Rank
47.607New York5233846
42.1212North Dakota341711
41.0813North Carolina1838714
38.6316Rhode Island8493648
35.7124New Jersey15414523
34.9825South Dakota3214323
34.2126South Carolina2724915
31.7031District of Columbia22101951
28.5633West Virginia34361035
21.4942New Hampshire31404050
16.7949New Mexico39215129

Infographic showing best and worst states at managing waste

Key Takeaways

More People, More Waste: Despite an emphasis on green living, only 25 states have mandatory recycling laws. Without recycling, trash adds up. More people equals more trash in landfills. 

Paper or Plastic? Eight states ban single-use plastic bags, and scores of cities have banned plastic bags. Only Montana has no law banning at least one product from landfills. 

Garbage at Home: Working from home turns your waste stream into a river, but having recycling centers nearby helps fight the flood. Vermont, for example, leads in recycling centers per 100,000 residents.  

Ask The Experts

What can we do to solve the waste problem? What states or countries are doing better at this, and what can we learn from them? We asked experts these questions:

  • What are a few simple things we can do to cut down on the amount of waste we generate in the U.S.?
  • What is your biggest concern about how much waste the U.S. generates, and how do you think that concern should be addressed?
  • Which countries are doing the best job at managing waste, and what can the U.S. learn from them?

Let’s take a look at their answers…

Marian Chertow

Associate Professor of Industrial Environmental Management, Director of the Program on Solid Waste Policy, and Director of the Industrial Environmental Management Program, Yale School of the Environment

Ronald L. Mersky, BSE, MSE, PhD, PE, BCEE

Chair of Civil Engineering, Associate Professor, Widener University

Dr. M. A. Karim, P.E., F.ASCE

Associate Professor of Civil Engineering, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Southern Polytechnic College of Engineering and Engineering Technology, Kennesaw State University, Marietta Campus

Brad Drda

Adjunct Professor, Part-Time Faculty, University of San Francisco

Marianne Krasny

Professor in Department of Natural Resources and the Environment and Director of the Civic Ecology Lab at Cornell University


To find the best and worst states at managing waste, we compared the 50 states and District of Columbia across 14 relevant metrics grouped into 4 main categories with the following maximum scores:

State Government Measures – Total Points: 52

  • Presence of Plastic Bag Bans: 8 Points
  • Food Waste Disposal Bans: 8 Points
  • Presence of State Beverage Container Deposit Laws: 8 Points
  • States with Electronic Waste Recycling Programs: 6 Points
  • States with Mandatory Recycling Laws: 7 Points
  • States with Multifamily Recycling Policies: 5 Points
  • Share of Households with Residential Food Collection Programs in the U.S.: 5 Points
  • Yard Debris Bans: 5 Points

Resource Management – Total Points: 15

  • Daily Water Consumption per Capita: 8 Points
  • Share of Electricity from Renewable Sources: 7 Points

Reuse of goods – Total Points: 15

  • Share of Population Collecting/Distributing Food: 7 Points
  • Share of Population Collecting/Distributing Clothes: 8 Points

Facilities – Total Points: 18

  • Number of Recycling Facilities per 100,000 residents: 10 Points
  • Number of Large Waste Facilities per 100,000 residents: 8 Points

Sources: the U.S. Census Bureau, National Conference of State Legislatures, U.S. Composting Council, UNC School of Government, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Northeast Recycling Council, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Energy Information Administration, the Corporation for National and Community Service, The Recycling Partnership

Why This Study Matters

Waste management isn’t just a U.S. problem, of course, but it’s supersized here. According to the nonprofit Frontier Group, America produces more than 30% of the world’s waste but represents just 4% of the world’s population.

The coronavirus pandemic is creating new trash challenges around the world. For instance, more people working from home means more residential garbage, which puts stress on trash collectors.

Also, discarded masks and gloves are piling up in landfills. and many of these pieces of personal protective equipment, or PPE, are littering roads and parking lots across the country.

Every year there is more garbage and waste to pick up and recycle, even new kinds of trash, but we all can do our part. There also is a lot to learn from the states that are best at managing waste.

Main Photo Credit: Jeff Herman / LawnStarter


John Egan

John Egan is the former editor in chief of Now, he is a freelance writer extraordinaire. He lives in Austin, Texas.