2022’s Best States at Managing Waste

Worker standing in front of recycling piles while holding a clipboard

Americans are trashy — literally. On average, we produce three times more garbage than the rest of the world. Unfortunately, most of that waste ends up in our landfills. 

But which states do the finest job of cleaning up after themselves? 

LawnStarter ranked 2022’s Best States at Managing Waste to find out who’s leading the way toward a cleaner, more environmentally responsible future.

We compared the 50 states and the District of Columbia based on their waste-reducing policies and infrastructure. We then weighed those factors against the amount of refuse that was landfilled or reused, among other key indicators of waste-management excellence.

How did your state fare? Find out in our ranking below, followed by some highlights and lowlights. Plus, learn how to minimize your own waste from our “trash talk” with experts.

Table of Contents

  1. State Rankings
  2. Highlights and Lowlights
  3. Trash Talk with the Experts
  4. Methodology
  5. Why This Study Matters

State Rankings 

See how each state fared in our ranking:

OVERALL RANKStateOverall ScorePolicies RankFacilities RankRecycling RankWaste Rank
1Connecticut68.5111076
2Vermont65.7614382
3Minnesota62.284111211
4California59.35351418
5Oregon58.9511994
6Maine58.58614233
7Iowa57.69158157
8Wisconsin56.424241838
9Pennsylvania56.301048146
10New York55.87650317
11Indiana53.686301147
12Texas52.461144533
13North Carolina51.6411351436
14Illinois50.821640625
15Washington50.74164985
16New Jersey50.046421050
17Virginia49.6616341332
18Michigan49.4216381624
19Rhode Island47.1111262151
20Colorado45.8834122214
21Massachusetts45.0734281910
22Alabama44.834122221
23Utah44.6220173629
24Hawaii43.6920393234
25Ohio43.4920412643
26Delaware43.4820212449
27Maryland43.4720363520
28Missouri43.2726451726
29South Dakota42.752624423
30South Carolina42.6326192940
31Mississippi41.9920274030
32North Dakota41.322614637
33Georgia41.0432332742
34New Hampshire40.2826462545
35Oklahoma40.2434252835
36Idaho39.852629458
37Louisiana39.574153415
38Wyoming39.503434722
39West Virginia38.903474139
40New Mexico38.2734134316
41Florida38.2440472028
42Nebraska37.0748153712
43Kansas36.624916319
44Arkansas36.0041233913
45District of Columbia34.373343501
46Tennessee33.1041373341
47Kentucky32.3849313031
48Arizona32.1841204244
49Montana29.8641184927
50Nevada25.8341324848
51Alaska24.644965119
Infographic showing the best states at managing waste, a ranking based on recycling rates, waste tonnage in landfills, waste-reducing policies, and more

Highlights and Lowlights

Northeast: Top of the Heap

Three New England states dominated our ranking: Connecticut, the No. 1 best state at managing waste, followed by Vermont in second place, while Maine finished sixth. 

Not only does each state have a robust set of policies that have reduced their waste, but they also lead the nation in recycling common containers and packaging materials

For example, more Connecticut communities have also joined others in the Northeast in implementing the effective “pay-as-you-throw” program, which charges consumers a trash collection fee based on the amount of waste they discard.

But even such model states for waste management have some work to do. They, in fact, are some of the worst states at recycling hazardous and production-related waste. 

Tiny States, Giant Problems

When it comes to waste management, size matters. That’s the challenge for America’s two smallest states: They’re not growing (physically) while their trash problem expands. 

Rhode Island ranked last and Delaware No. 49 in amount of landfill waste by surface area. 

Rhode Island’s only landfill stands to reach full capacity in just 13 years. Its shrinking population could potentially buy the state some time to explore alternatives but not much. 

Delaware, by contrast, was named one of the fast-growing U.S. states. But it, too, is racing against time, as some proposed solutions like “vertical expansion” of a landfill have met legal opposition.

Wasting Away

It might surprise the people of Arizona (No. 48), Montana (No. 49), and Nevada (No. 50) that their states are among the worst at managing their waste overall. Each bombed nearly every waste management category.
These states are also the most wasteful of their food, a telling sign that they might not manage other types of waste well. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, uneaten food takes up the most space in our landfills, making up nearly a quarter of all waste.

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
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

What is your biggest concern about how much waste the U.S. generates, and how do you think that concern should be addressed?

Well, what I find most disappointing about our residential waste management is that so many people don’t bother to separate their waste, as they are asked to do, and that makes reusing the reusables and recycling the recyclables much more difficult and expensive.

 

Ronald L. Mersky, BSE, MSE, PhD, PE, BCEE
Chair of Civil Engineering, Associate Professor, Widener University

What are a few simple things we can do to cut down on the amount of waste we generate in the U.S.?  

Very simply, buy less. Look at your trash and think about what you are disposing of that you did not use.

What is your biggest concern about how much waste the U.S. generates, and how do you think that concern should be addressed?

Waste is often transported long distances for disposal or treatment. Locally managing waste will reduce environmental impacts.

Which countries are doing the best job at managing waste, and what can the U.S. learn from them? 

It is not a good idea to rank countries’ waste management success by simple statistics (recycling rates, amount generated per person, etc.). 

Every country has its own circumstances (economics, land availability, recycling infrastructure), so each country (and region in large countries such as the U.S.) should have a MSW system that is appropriate for its specific conditions.

 

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

What are a few simple things we can do to cut down on the amount of waste we generate in the U.S.?

Buying processed foods and other processed materials, using of recycle materials as well as composting food waste at home level can reduce 20-30% of solid waste generation 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?

My biggest concern is the people education about the solid waste generation and source separation and segregation. Educating people about the implications of waste generation can help reduce the waste generation.

Which countries are doing the best job at managing waste, and what can the U.S. learn from them?

I have done a comparative study of solid waste generation and handling. I found that the EU is doing better than the USA and that can help the U.S. learn.

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

What are a few simple things we can do to cut down on the amount of waste we generate in the U.S.?

Take responsibility for your own waste. Look in your garbage can and let that guide your efforts.

The heaviest portion for most people is probably food waste like coffee grounds and banana peels. Food waste sent to landfills turns into methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Finding a way to compost food waste is the best way to reduce waste if you can.

Try to avoid packaging as much as you can, especially plastic and plastic bags.

There is no silver bullet, just lots of thoughtful little steps. Let your garbage can be your guide. 

What is your biggest concern about how much waste the U.S. generates, and how do you think that concern should be addressed?

Waste (food, paper, metal, textiles, plastic, etc,) is just the downstream aspect of consumption and economic  growth.

The U.S. has 5% of the world’s population but makes 20% of the waste. Earth’s resources are finite and our level of consuming/wasting may not be sustainable, especially as other countries aspire to  high-consumption lifestyles like ours too.

We need to reduce, reuse, recycle, and compost as much as we can now and support efforts toward the higher goal of a circular economy which designs for reuse and recycling rather than waste. 

Which countries are doing the best job at managing waste, and what can the U.S. learn from them?

I’m not really qualified to answer this question country by country, but, in general, places that enact strong waste policies like mandatory recycling access or plastic bag bans, invest in compost and recycling infrastructure, and have strong civic values, have less waste. 

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

What are a few simple things we can do to cut down on the amount of waste we generate in the U.S.?

If our concern is about the climate crisis, the most important thing we can do is to reduce food waste.

Reducing food waste is among the top three or four actions we can take to draw down greenhouse gases in the atmosphere according to the Drawdown Project www.drawdown.org. And it’s something anyone can do— by paying attention to how we shop, how much we cook, and how much we put on our plates.

Plus, reducing food waste saves us money.

Some helpful resources for reducing food waste are available at the Love Food Hate Waste website. Also, information is available at the ReFED website.

Yard wastes can be composted using aerobic systems to reduce methane emissions. If you have a compost pile turn it to avoid methane buildup.

Methane, a byproduct of anaerobic breakdown of organic wastes, is a major contributor to greenhouse gases.

Of course, plastics is a major concern also, given that recycling plastics is not easy and not widely practiced.

Pay attention to how much plastics we use, put pressure on businesses by talking with your grocery store or restaurant or writing letters to industry or the local paper, and support policies to reduce single use plastics.

What is your biggest concern about how much waste the U.S. generates, and how do you think that concern should be addressed?

My biggest concern is food waste followed by plastic waste.

I think we need to use an all-hands-on-deck approach to reduce waste because we are all playing a role in producing waste — from the individual consumer to the multinational corporation.

So, we need to examine our household and consumer practices, work with our grocery stores to help them adopt practices such as avoid “buy-one, get-one-free deals” and large package sizes that encourage consumers to buy food they don’t need, and work with local legislators to implement curbside pickup of yard and food wastes.

Similarly, we need to work from the household to the business to the policy level to reduce single-use plastics. We can also join an organization that helps repurpose food waste — such as food banks that collect unused food from restaurants and grocery stores.

Which countries are doing the best job at managing waste, and what can the U.S. learn from them?

Sorry, I don’t know the answer to this question, but in terms of food waste, the Love Food Hate Waste campaign originated in UK and has spread to other countries.

It has the most comprehensive set of resources of any food waste organization I have seen, and the UK has also led in research on how to reduce food waste.

 

Methodology

We ranked the 50 states and the District of Columbia from best (No. 1) to worst (No. 51) based on their overall scores (out of 100 possible points), averaged across all the weighted metrics listed below.

MetricWeightingMin. ValueMax. ValueBest
Policies
Presence of Mandatory Recycling Laws301Max. Value
Presence of Multifamily Recycling Policies202Max. Value
Presence of Electronic Waste Recycling Programs201Max. Value
Presence of Plastic Bag Bans202Max. Value
Presence of Beverage Container Deposit Laws101Max. Value
Presence of Yard Debris Bans102Max. Value
Facilities
Recycling Facilities per 100,000 Residents300.32Max. Value
Large-Waste Facilities per 100,000 Residents30.5811.69Max. Value
Number of Municipal Solid Waste Landfills10300Min. Value
Number of Hazardous-Waste Sites10114Min. Value
Number of Hazardous-Waste Recyclers1037Min. Value
Recycling
Recycling Rate for Common Containers and Packaging Materials317%74%Max. Value
Tons of Hazardous Waste Recycled30 Tons498,548 TonsMax. Value
Share of Production-Related Waste Recycled30.00%93.70%Max. Value
Share of Production-Related Waste Managed for Energy Recovery20.00%45.68%Max. Value
Share of Production-Related Waste Treated10.00%87.36%Max. Value
Share of Production-Related Waste Disposed of or Released11.20%99.71%Min. Value
Number of Clothing Donation Sites15100Max. Value
Number of Habitat for Humanity ReStores1162Max. Value
Number of Car Junk Yards111,205Max. Value
Waste
Tons of Waste in Landfills by State Surface Area30 Tons101,882.86 TonsMin. Value
Toxic Chemicals Release (Pounds) per Square Mile139.9 Pounds3,386.26 PoundsMin. Value
Risk-Screening Environmental Indicator Score133379.4 MillionMin. Value
Food Waste Management2150Max. Value

Sources: Ball Corporation, ClotheDonations.com, The Environmental Finance Blog, Habitat for Humanity, The Recycling Partnership, National Conference of State Legislatures, Northeast Recycling Council, Salvage-Parts.com, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and US Composting Council

Why This Study Matters

America has a big, stinky problem — and it’s growing bigger and stinkier every day. 

Not only is the U.S. the most wasteful country in the world, but we also are among the worst at managing our waste, according to a recent study

Just how bad is the problem? First, some perspective: The average American throws away 4.9 pounds of trash per day, or 34.3 pounds per week. 

Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, we add up to 43% extra waste to that total, or an additional 29 pounds per week, nearly doubling our typical weekly total. Altogether, that amounts to about four average-sized turkeys per week or 16 per month during the holiday season.

Where does all of that waste go? Most of it ends up in our landfills, nearly a quarter of which are on track to reach capacity — and therefore close — within the next decade. The rest either gets recycled, composted, or burned to generate electricity. 

What’s the impact? For many of us, once our trash is out of sight, it’s out of mind. But it all comes back to us in one form or another: Dangerous chemicals produced by our waste can end up in the water we drink, in the air we breathe, and even in the everyday products we use, leading to disease or death.

How do we kick our wasteful habits? On a macro level, it begins by understanding the extent of the problem, which this LawnStarter study aims to spotlight, especially during such a wasteful time of year. 

Other ways states can better manage waste, experts say, include implementing “pay-as-you-throw” trash collection programs or introducing stronger recycling legislation, which 94% of U.S. consumers support.

That appears to be happening. Bloomberg reported that 35 states introduced recycling bills in the last year. 

We also can do our part as consumers by reducing our own waste and disposing of it properly to avoid hazards. This goes for yard debris, too. Grass clippings left on the street, for example, are unsightly and can be deadly for motorcyclists

So, this holiday season — and year-round — be more mindful of what you discard and how you discard it.

Main Photo Credit: Shutterstock

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Staff Writer