2023’s Dirtiest Cities in America

trash overflowing in two public receptacles with a line of people in the background

City living has its advantages, but more residents usually means more pollution, more rats, and more trash. The problem is worse in some cities than in others.

LawnStarter ranked 2023’s Dirtiest Cities in America following one of the trashiest times of the year, the winter holiday season.

We compared over 150 of the biggest U.S. cities across four categories, including pollution, living conditions, infrastructure, and consumer satisfaction. 

Depending on where you live, you may want to buy some air fresheners, mouse traps, or a can of Raid.


City Rankings

See how your city and others fared in our ranking:

Overall Rank (1 = Dirtiest)CityStateOverall ScorePollution RankLiving Conditions RankInfrastructure RankConsumer Satisfaction Rank
3San BernardinoCA51.581561311
5Jersey CityNJ48.1150211015
7San AntonioTX47.4334122936
9Oklahoma CityOK46.51525896
12New YorkNY46.1910216213
15Los AngelesCA45.5930295512
19Las VegasNV43.981599237
20Fort LauderdaleFL43.69291042114
29El PasoTX41.31351147739
40Fort WorthTX39.3933657632
43Long BeachCA38.8192814767
44Kansas CityMO38.7337346977
45Kansas CityKS38.6476222265
54New OrleansLA37.06109204120
59Colorado SpringsCO35.695513440101
61St. PetersburgFL35.34951516122
70Salt Lake CityUT34.331031262338
75Port St. LucieFL33.873611243144
81Santa ClaritaCA33.19439140150
84Santa AnaCA32.97867213324
89Newport NewsVA32.09143901006
92St. LouisMO31.6189875656
94Huntington BeachCA31.24794113978
97San FranciscoCA30.971462114917
98Fort CollinsCO30.936714850138
99Rancho CucamongaCA30.741664135152
103San DiegoCA30.4275969486
116Sioux FallsSD28.298014671139
125Little RockAR26.7811912137131
128Grand RapidsMI26.2312912310168
129San JoseCA26.191477313621
133St. PaulMN24.9811140117146
134Boise CityID24.8814214514134
138Overland ParkKS24.131454666148
149Des MoinesIA20.59137143127128
152Virginia BeachVA19.0714911298132
Infographic showing the Dirtiest Cities in America, a ranking based on pollution levels, infrastructure, consumer satisfaction, and more
Note: For presentation purposes, not all ties may be displayed for some of the above metrics.

The Good, the Bad, and the Dirty

Houston, We Have a Problem

Space City lands at the top of our ranking’s trash heap as America’s Dirtiest City. It claims the title from Newark, New Jersey, its 2022 predecessor and this year’s No. 2.

Among the 152 cities we ranked, Space City is the third most polluted. In fact, a recent study found that the city’s petrochemical facilities severely violate EPA safety guidelines. 

Our data supports those findings: Houston ranks third worst in greenhouse gas emissions from large industrial facilities. The city has the biggest cockroach problem, too, according to the Census Bureau. 

Despite such conditions, Houstonians are still more satisfied with the cleanliness of their city than the residents of 33 other big cities, including Amarillo (No. 33) and Fort Worth (No. 32).

Salt Life = the Good Life?

“Coastal” doesn’t necessarily equate with “clean,” but cities close to water, particularly in California, Virginia, and North Carolina, dominate the 10 cleanest spots in our ranking.

For the second consecutive year, Virginia Beach, Virginia, outshines all other cities in our ranking. The city’s stellar scorecard includes lack of Pollution (No. 149) and above-average Living Conditions (No. 112) that come highly praised by locals (No. 132 in Consumer Satisfaction).

Farther inland cities like Fremont, California (No. 148), and Winston-Salem, North Carolina (No. 146), also sparkled based on similar rankings. 

At No. 149, Des Moines is the lone exception representing the Heartland, thanks to fantastic scores across the board, especially in Living Conditions.

All Choked Up

Los Angeles (15th dirtiest) is often characterized as the poster child of pollution. However, the Inland Empire region — once an orange paradise and now a sea of warehouses east of LA — has consistently ranked worst for air quality in the nation.

This trend bears out in our own study. The biggest cities making up Inland Empire, such as San Bernardino, Riverside, and Ontario, all tied for the poorest median air quality.

It’s a pretty low bar to cross when one’s own residents already consider their city the “Armpit of California,” but San Bernardino managed to downgrade from fourth to third dirtiest this year. 

This negative sentiment among locals also bears out in our ranking: For the second year in a row, San Bernardino has the most dissatisfied residents when it comes to the cleanliness of their city. Other cities in the region fared better overall, but some weren’t far off in Consumer Satisfaction.

Surprising Findings

The Life Un-aquatic

The Southwest water crisis is a double whammy — both quantity and quality are in decline. A decades-long drought, climate change, and over-consumption have not only zapped the Southwest’s water supply, but they also have exacerbated drinking-water contamination.

Except for Salt Lake City, every Southwest city we ranked violated the Safe Drinking Water Act at least once in 2020, the year of the most recent EPA data.

Lack of access to clean water — let alone water itself — can drastically reduce quality of life, but the Southwest’s cleanliness problem extends beyond unsafe drinking water. Every city in this region landed in the worse half of our ranking. Las Vegas is the dirtiest among them at No. 19, while Chandler, Arizona, is the “cleanest” at No. 71.

The Butt of All Dirty Jokes

Ohioans are kicking butts — cigarette butts, that is — onto places where they shouldn’t. Cigarette butts are the most littered item across the globe, and in some of the Buckeye State’s biggest cities, it’s one of the filthiest problems. 

Five out of the six Ohio cities we ranked occupy the top six spots of our “share of smokers” metric. Cleveland has the highest percentage, 29.1%, among the six Ohio cities, while Columbus — one of the cleanest cities overall at No. 137 — has the lowest at 22.1%.

That’s not to say every smoker in Ohio litters, but cigarette butts are a common sight across the state — despite strict litter laws. Thankfully, cities like Cleveland have introduced programs to help residents kick their littering habit.

Our data suggests, however, that the state needs better programs to help residents kick their smoking habit, too.

Ask The Experts

Trash, smog, and pests are unsightly, but many of us don’t consider the deeper impact of filth — and our own filthy habits — on our lives. 

We turned to a panel of urban planning and sanitation experts to help us better understand those effects and how to improve our cities. Read their thoughts below.

  1. In what ways does a dirty city directly affect its citizens?

  2. What steps can cities take to achieve a cleaner environment and better air quality?

  3. Cleanliness isn’t cheap. How can local governments balance their budgets while spending the necessary funds to keep their cities clean?

  4. What lessons can we learn from some of the world’s cleanest big cities like Copenhagen and Singapore?

  5. How can individual residents contribute to a cleaner city?
Kevin Svitana
Professor, Biology & Earth Science
Richard S. Cowles, Ph.D.
Agricultural Scientist, Assistant Scientist, Associate Scientist, and Scientist
Dr. Jerry Kavouras
Associate Professor and Chair of Biology
Dr. Edgar Stach
Institute director and professor of architecture at CABE
Morgan Berman
Thomas Jefferson University alumna, Award-winning entrepreneur, and local community leader
Kevin Svitana
Professor, Biology & Earth Science
Otterbein University

In what ways does a dirty city directly affect its citizens?

I’m not sure what they’re referring to as a dirty city; I’m assuming it is trash related. If it is trash, this attracts vectors which can ultimately lead to illnesses and diseases. Also, just the “dirty appearance” detracts from the community pride.

What steps can cities take to achieve a cleaner environment and better air quality?

In the US, there are many environmental regulations that are intended to protect the public. Compliance with the regulations would be sufficient. However, often the public is not aware of the regulatory requirements. So, it’s often a lack of information sharing of the requirements.

Cleanliness isn’t cheap. How can local governments balance their budgets while spending the necessary funds to keep their cities clean?

That is a difficult task. Funds are usually limited and governmental programs with funding are also in high demand, so many cities are left out. The most important part is educating people about why it’s important so that they comply.

How can individual residents contribute to a cleaner city?

Citizens can contribute by being informed and wanting to be responsible. It’s not a question of needing additional regulation, but rather complying with those that already exist.

Richard S. Cowles, Ph.D.
Agricultural Scientist, Assistant Scientist, Associate Scientist, and Scientist
The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station / Valley Laboratory

In what ways does a dirty city directly affect its citizens?

Dirty air implies poor health of the citizens due to excess exposure to polluted air.

What steps can cities take to achieve a cleaner environment and better air quality?

There are two sides that should be considered:

  1. Reduction of particulate and other air pollutants (ozone, NOx, CO) through rerouting of highways away from densely populated areas, increased use of public transportation, and cleaner transportation and power plants.
  2. Greening of cities through planting and maintenance of trees and establishing green rooftops. Rerouting transportation may become a moot point as internal combustion engines are made obsolete with electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles.

Cleanliness isn’t cheap. How can local governments balance their budgets while spending the necessary funds to keep their cities clean?

Planting trees is one of the most cost-effective tools available. The environmental benefits accrued from having planted trees can pay for themselves. Additional benefits not mentioned earlier include a reduced need for air conditioning (reducing the energy demand of neighboring buildings), due to the cooling effects from the trees, and a reduction in stormwater runoff.

Building the infrastructure to manage stormwater runoff can be extremely expensive. Trees reduce the maximum demand for such systems, thus reducing the overall cost of such systems.

Finally, the physical and mental health of residents is improved by having adequate tree canopy. Thus, there should be attendant reductions in cost for police protection and health care.

How can individual residents contribute to a cleaner city?

They can drive less and use public transportation. They can ask their representatives to consider the factors mentioned above when doing city planning. Citizens can ask for more trees to be planted in their neighborhoods.

If they have a good site for doing so, they can plant an appropriate tree on their own property. As an example: in Hartford, to reach their goal for tree canopy cover, the city will have to convince many property owners to allow trees to be planted on their land. There just aren’t enough city parks and right-of-way space to establish enough trees to meet the canopy goals on city property.

Dr. Jerry Kavouras
Associate Professor and Chair of Biology
Lewis University

In what ways does a dirty city directly affect its citizens?

How do you define dirty when it comes to a city? Is it merely air pollution? Do trash and general cleanliness count?

If air pollution is the sole criterion, then research has demonstrated that in cities where the concentrations of suspended particulate matter are high, in particular, PM2.5, you see a greater prevalence of respiratory illnesses. However, recent research indicates that air pollution adversely affects the development of children, including cognitive function.

What steps can cities take to achieve a cleaner environment and better air quality?

In larger cities, better mass transit systems can encourage citizens to reduce their daily driving, which reduces outdoor air pollution. However, we forget that we spend most of our time during the day indoors. Indoor air pollution is a forgotten, less publicized, problem.

Whether it is sitting in our cars during long commutes or spending 90% of our time inside our workplace and home, we are exposed to various chemicals. The more energy efficient our buildings and homes become, the more air is “trapped” indoors, increasing the concentrations of potential hazards, e.g., radon.

What lessons can we learn from some of the world’s cleanest big cities like Copenhagen and Singapore?

A collaborative effort among citizens, governance, and industries is needed to make significant improvements in the environment. All stakeholders must participate in conversations to make change happen.

How can individual residents contribute to a cleaner city?

In the United States, reducing the amount of driving that we do on a daily basis can improve outdoor air quality. Local and state governments can work together to close coal-burning power plants and incinerators in addition to halting new incinerators from being built.

But again, the effects of indoor air pollutants are significant and should not be ignored when developing strategies to improve air quality in cities.

Dr. Edgar Stach
Institute director and professor of architecture at CABE
Thomas Jefferson University

In what ways does a dirty city directly affect its citizens?

First, we must define what “dirty” really means. From my perspective, it isn’t litter, but the effect on population health and individual health that accompanies living in an urban area. There are several factors from that perspective: air quality, water quality, and noise quality. It is not an aesthetic issue; it is about hazards on so many levels that affect a population’s health.

Everyone’s health is affected by exposure to air pollution. Through our lungs, we breathe in air pollutants. From there, they enter our bodies and contribute to lung cancer and other diseases.

Contaminated water and poor sanitation are linked to the transmission of diseases such as cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid, and polio. Absent, inadequate, or inappropriately managed water and sanitation services expose individuals to preventable health risks.

There are direct links between noise and health. Millions of people are affected negatively by noise pollution. Noise affects us in multiple ways: stress-related illnesses, high blood pressure, speech interference, hearing loss, sleep disruption, and lost productivity.

What steps can cities take to achieve a cleaner environment and better air quality?

I do not think a cleaner environment solely means improved air quality. This is about how to make cities cleaner altogether, in all aspects of life. We need to reduce carbon-emitting cars, trucks, and buses; traffic emits so many pollutants into the environment that impact us. We need to think about big power plants close to, or within, the cities.

Buildings in urban areas emit CO2, heat, and noise through heating systems, air-conditioning, and building services.

What we really need to look to do better is to transition from primarily carbon-based energy to green forms of energy. We need to replace dirty air-polluting power production with green energy.

Our cities need more green spaces, trees, and parks and less non-permeable surfaces like parking lots. The urban green can help by cleaning the air and producing zones of coolness in places that were once heat islands. Fresh-air corridors need to remain in place to ventilate cities with fresh air coming in from the countryside.

Cleanliness isn’t cheap. How can local governments balance their budgets while spending the necessary funds to keep their cities clean?

Regulations and some political benchmarking are needed to reduce emissions at every level. That can be done by restricting traffic in areas to reduce pollution. We can influence human behavior with financial incentives –– things like installing solar panels on homes and collecting rainwater.

On a personal level, there are many things we can do while there are also things that communities and cities can do. But it all comes down to identifying ways to change personal behavior. Driving less and using bikes, public transportation, or walking more.

Behavioral change on an urban level means looking at how and where we are building and maintaining buildings, but doing that in smarter, more responsible ways. Not everything is free, but you can make changes from one aspect to another by reducing subsidies or favoring one industry over another with environmental benefits in mind, like spending less money on streets and more on bike lanes.

What lessons can we learn from some of the world’s cleanest big cities like Copenhagen and Singapore?

When I think of cities, I do not think of their governments or their buildings, but the people living there.

People in Copenhagen, Singapore, and other clean cities around the world fully embrace the concept of carbon neutrality, green energy, public transportation, and the ability to bike and walk safely. They fully embrace giving up individual transportation in lieu of a livable city.

To make the change towards a greener, healthier, and cleaner city, good public transportation is the cornerstone. The public transportation in Copenhagen and Singapore is fantastic, which is why people use it, unlike a city like Los Angeles which barely has any public transportation.

Transforming a city into a clean and green one requires both a top-down approach and a bottom-up approach. For example, the city can turn carbon-based energy production into green, localized energy production. At the same time, we –– the citizens of cities –– can embrace carbon-neutral lifestyles.

The new clean city approach involves multiple players –– from transportation and energy to the building sector –– as well as human behavior.

How can individual residents contribute to a cleaner city?

As individuals, we need to take responsibility for our cities. It’s not only the city’s responsibility. We must collectively change the world. We need to embrace cleanliness on many levels, from the way we move to our daily habits. It’s not just littering or trash on the streets. While that may be the most visible effect, there are more severe effects tied to global warming, and that affects all living organisms on our planet.

Morgan Berman
Thomas Jefferson University alumna, Award-winning entrepreneur, and local community leader
Thomas Jefferson University

In what ways does a dirty city directly affect its citizens?

Litter has a range of impacts, including environmental, economic, health, and even crime. At Glitter we are working to remove litter from the streets in neighborhoods that often lack the resources to tackle this issue the way wealthier areas with dense commercial activity can.

In cities like Philadelphia, wealthy neighborhoods hire private cleaners to keep streets clean. Lacking the dollars and infrastructure, lower and mixed-income residential areas are neglected, leading to a disproportionate level of these negative consequences for those residents.

And I’d encourage rethinking the use of the word ‘citizens’ for two reasons: firstly, visitors (whether native or foreign-born), are going to judge a city by its level of cleanliness. Just look at Philadelphia –– we’ve sadly earned the nickname “Filthadelphia” –– and it has an impact on our image and I’m sure our tourism industry among others. The second reason is that those who live in a city but are not citizens still deserve to live in a clean and healthy environment.

What steps can cities take to achieve a cleaner environment and better air quality?

My focus with Glitter is empowering communities with an affordable and impactful street cleaning service that places a cleaner on every block. We make it affordable for neighbors to pay-what-you-can-afford to split the cost of someone coming and cleaning the block.

We had tried to integrate this into our municipal services with the City of Philadelphia’s Streets Department, getting so far as actually succeeding in a line item in the city’s budget, but the leadership changed their minds, and it’s been an uphill battle since then to collaborate.

While we continue to hope that things improve with that partnership, we are growing and cleaning every day through our crowdfunding system with neighbors and are very excited about our success and impact there.

Cleanliness isn’t cheap. How can local governments balance their budgets while spending the necessary funds to keep their cities clean?

The first thing that is needed is experienced and motivated leadership. When you have that, then everything else can work, but without it, you get programs that lack KPIs, you get budget decisions that aren’t tied to goals, and you get employees who don’t care.

We need a street cleaning program that is designed to be effective and efficient –– it requires accountability on both ends of the organizational hierarchy. Right now there isn’t any at either end. What we have are gas-guzzling machines that burn fossil fuels, break down, and don’t clean sidewalks.

We need to stop spending money on ‘campaigns’ and start spending it on infrastructure that solves issues that are unique to our neighborhoods –– like in South Philly where thousands of rowhomes have been converted into small apartments without any outdoor storage access to keep trashbags, let alone a trashcan.

What lessons can we learn from some of the world’s cleanest big cities like Copenhagen and Singapore?

I don’t know much about those cities so I can’t say what they are doing well and how that can translate –– especially without understanding the economic, structural, cultural, and political contexts of these places.

What I can say is that cities like Philadelphia, where litter is a major problem, need to spend more time understanding what isn’t working and why and then address those areas. For too long we’ve had a Streets Commissioner who has been unwilling to admit when they falter, is intimidated by innovation, and is satisfied with the status quo.

How can individual residents contribute to a cleaner city?

Glitter is designed so that any resident can take an active role in cleaning up their city, one block at a time. A resident can sign up for a crowdfunding page with Glitter, make a pledge, and then recruit other neighbors to chip in.

Our process allows for regular cleaning of city blocks that don’t have the benefit of a wealthy commercial corridor. Glitter makes a clean beautiful neighborhood accessible and equitable, especially through matching grants, corporate sponsorship, and our impact fund donations that we use to offset costs in lower income areas.


For each of the 200 biggest U.S. cities, we gathered publicly available data on the factors listed in the table below. 

We then grouped those factors into four categories: Pollution, Living Conditions, Infrastructure, and Consumer Satisfaction.

Next, we calculated weighted scores for each city in each category. 

Finally, we averaged the scores for each city across all categories. We eliminated 48 cities lacking sufficient data for a fair comparison, resulting in a final sample size of 152 cities.

The city that earned the highest average score was ranked “Dirtiest” (No. 1), while the city with the lowest was ranked “Cleanest” (No. 152). (Note: The “Cleanest” among individual factors may not be No. 152 due to ties.)

MetricWeightingLowest ValueHighest ValueDirtiest
Median Air Quality Index52384Highest
Presence of Water Quality Violations (1 = Present, 0 = Not Present)301Highest
Greenhouse-Gas Emissions (Metric Tons CO2e) per Capita3031Highest
Annual Excess Fuel Consumption (Gallons per Auto Commuter)1323Highest
Percentage of Smokers37%29%Highest
Living Conditions
Population Density (Residents per Square Mile)216928,182Highest
Share of Overcrowded Homes10%13.7%Highest
Share of Homes with No Kitchen Facilities10.5%18.9%Highest
Share of Homes with No Plumbing Facilities10.1%16.5%Highest
Share of Homes with Mold21.7%5.2%Highest
Share of Homes with Signs of Mice or Rats30.2%21.6%Highest
Share of Homes with Signs of Cockroaches31.3%37%Highest
Share of Homes with Sewage Disposal Breakdowns21.7%5.2%Highest
Unsheltered Homeless Rate (per 1,000 Residents)105.4Highest
Tons of Waste in Landfills per 100,000 Residents3024.4 MillionHighest
Rating of State Waste Regulations and Measures2150Highest
Refuse and Recycling Collectors per 100,000 Residents17242Lowest
Alternative-Fuel Stations per 100,000 Residents15194Lowest
Number of Junk Yards10121Highest
Consumer Satisfaction
Share of Residents Who Find City Dirty and Untidy30%92%Highest
Share of Residents Dissatisfied with Pollution30%71%Highest
Share of Residents Dissatisfied with Garbage Disposal20%82%Highest
Share of Residents Dissatisfied with Greenery and Parks10%100%Highest

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, National Transportation Research Nonprofit (TRIP), Numbeo, Other LawnStarter Studies, Salvage-Parts.com, Texas A&M Transportation Institute, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Why This Study Matters

During the pandemic, lockdowns helped clean our air and water, but old habits die hard. Nearly three years later, pollution is worse in many urban areas, and U.S. emissions are back up.

In many cities, residents also deal with pests, litter, and even bad waste-management services.

These problems are unsightly, but they’re more harmful than we might realize. Air pollution, for instance, worsens lung cancer and increases our chances of heart disease and stroke.

Dealing with dirt and grime can be a huge drain on municipal budgets, too. San Francisco, for example, spent $72.5 million in 2019 to clean its streets, up from $46 million in 2017.

Where does all that money come from? You, the taxpayer.

Here’s the bottom line: Dirty cities aren’t just an eyesore — they also damage our bodies and our wallets.

As spring cleaning season arrives, it’s a good time to check on our dirty habits and make positive changes for a healthier life and a more beautiful city to enjoy.

Clean cities tend to have lots of tidy, healthy, green lawns. If you need help getting and keeping your yard looking picture-perfect and pest-free, LawnStarter’s pros can help.

Main Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Richie Bernardo

Richie Bernardo

Richie Bernardo is a managing editor who previously wrote about personal finance and immigration. Philippine-born, Kansas City-bred, and barbecue-fed, Richie enjoys baking, deal hunting, and binging “Ancient Aliens.”