American Cities With the Worst Littering Problem [2022 Edition]

Litter is a nationwide problem, but communities across the country have significantly different experiences with waste. According to the 2020 National Litter Study from Keep America Beautiful, there are nearly 50 billion pieces of litter in U.S. roadways and waterways, and 90% of U.S. residents agree that litter is a problem in their state. But recent trends in litter are K-shaped, meaning that some communities—with more resources for cleanup or behavioral and economic characteristics that discourage littering—have seen decreases over time, while others have had more litter in recent years.

These diverging trends in litter are also evident within certain cities, especially those where economic disparities are growing. In recent years, cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland have seen widening gulfs between their highest-earning and lowest-earning residents. Residents who have greater means or are living in wealthier parts of these communities may encounter litter less often, while lower-income neighborhoods may see more dumping and waste. Growing homeless populations in these cities may also increase the presence of litter, as large encampments produce more waste near streets and roadways.

Chart1_Impoverished homes are more likely to have litter in neighborhood

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Census data confirms the relationship between economic inequality and litter, as low income households are more likely to encounter litter in their immediate area. Neighborhoods where the typical household is below the poverty line report litter on their blocks much more commonly than well-off households. Households above 200% of the poverty level report litter in the areas around their homes half as often as households between 50% and 99% of the poverty level (7% vs. 14%).

These disparities are meaningful because litter is more than just a nuisance or an eyesore. Misplaced trash can be a safety issue, making roadways more dangerous to navigate, clogging up stormwater and wastewater systems, and increasing fire risks. Wildlife can be trapped or injured by litter, and the presence of litter can also contribute to soil and water pollution, which creates an unhealthy environment for both wildlife and humans. And litter can also inhibit the economic development that lower-income areas need: areas with large amounts of litter may face lower property values, fewer visits from tourists and shoppers, and greater difficulty recruiting businesses.

Chart2_Litter is associated w: lower home & neighborhood satisfaction

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Factors like these make heavily littered areas less pleasant to live in. Survey data shows a negative correlation between litter and people’s opinion of their homes and neighborhoods. When asked to rate their neighborhood and home on a scale of 1 to 10, households without litter on their block tended to respond more highly.

The data used in this analysis is from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Housing Survey. To determine the locations with the worst littering problem, researchers at Construction Coverage calculated the share of households with litter on their block, ranking them from high to low. In the event of a tie, the location with the lower average opinion of their present neighborhood (on a 1–10 scale) was ranked higher. Only select metropolitan areas and states with data available from the American Housing Survey were considered in the analysis.

Here are the major U.S. metros with the worst littering problem.

Large Metros With the Worst Littering Problem

Chicago, IL

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10. Chicago, IL

  • Share of households with litter on their block: 9.4%
  • Average opinion of present neighborhood (1–10 scale): 8.54
  • Average opinion of present home (1–10 scale): 8.61
  • Median household income: $72,000
  • Median home purchase price: $188,000
Phoenix, AZ

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9. Phoenix, AZ

  • Share of households with litter on their block: 9.8%
  • Average opinion of present neighborhood (1–10 scale): 8.59
  • Average opinion of present home (1–10 scale): 8.89
  • Median household income: $64,000
  • Median home purchase price: $195,000
New York, NY

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8. New York, NY

  • Share of households with litter on their block: 10.0%
  • Average opinion of present neighborhood (1–10 scale): 8.62
  • Average opinion of present home (1–10 scale): 8.84
  • Median household income: $70,000
  • Median home purchase price: $270,000
Milwaukee, WI

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7. Milwaukee, WI

  • Share of households with litter on their block: 10.2%
  • Average opinion of present neighborhood (1–10 scale): 8.69
  • Average opinion of present home (1–10 scale): 8.76
  • Median household income: $60,000
  • Median home purchase price: $160,000
Memphis, TN

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6. Memphis, TN

  • Share of households with litter on their block: 11.4%
  • Average opinion of present neighborhood (1–10 scale): 8.57
  • Average opinion of present home (1–10 scale): 8.70
  • Median household income: $45,000
  • Median home purchase price: $129,000
Portland, OR

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5. Portland, OR

  • Share of households with litter on their block: 11.9%
  • Average opinion of present neighborhood (1–10 scale): 8.38
  • Average opinion of present home (1–10 scale): 8.56
  • Median household income: $75,300
  • Median home purchase price: $240,000
New Orleans, LA

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4. New Orleans, LA

  • Share of households with litter on their block: 12.2%
  • Average opinion of present neighborhood (1–10 scale): 8.67
  • Average opinion of present home (1–10 scale): 8.72
  • Median household income: $48,600
  • Median home purchase price: $140,000
Philadelphia, PA

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3. Philadelphia, PA

  • Share of households with litter on their block: 12.5%
  • Average opinion of present neighborhood (1–10 scale): 8.59
  • Average opinion of present home (1–10 scale): 8.75
  • Median household income: $71,570
  • Median home purchase price: $175,000
Los Angeles, CA

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2. Los Angeles, CA

  • Share of households with litter on their block: 14.9%
  • Average opinion of present neighborhood (1–10 scale): 8.52
  • Average opinion of present home (1–10 scale): 8.73
  • Median household income: $75,000
  • Median home purchase price: $300,000
San Francisco, CA

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1. San Francisco, CA

  • Share of households with litter on their block: 18.1%
  • Average opinion of present neighborhood (1–10 scale): 8.67
  • Average opinion of present home (1–10 scale): 8.80
  • Median household income: $106,000
  • Median home purchase price: $456,000

Detailed Findings & Methodology

The data used in this analysis is from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Housing Survey for the year 2019, the most recent data available. To determine the locations with the worst littering problem, researchers calculated the share of households with litter on their block, ranking them from high to low. In the event of a tie, the location with the lower average opinion of their present neighborhood (1–10 scale) was ranked higher. Only select metropolitan areas and states with data available from the American Housing Survey were considered in the analysis.

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Jonathan Jones

Jonathan Jones is a senior researcher and data journalist for Construction Coverage. He received his J.D. from Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and has degrees in philosophy and political science from UCLA.

When Jon is not researching real estate and public policy, he likes to fix up old cars and work on home improvement projects.