The state of zero waste

How far away are we from a circular economy?

Rich Carey |
Plastic waste pollutes our environment.
Holly Thompson
Holly Thompson

Former Beyond Plastic, Associate, PIRG

Matt Casale

Former Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG

Many days, I walk home from our office in Washington, D.C., past the normal bustle of people and the noise of cars passing by. But since I started as a campaigns associate on PIRG’s Zero Waste program, I have begun to notice other things about the area. Now when I walk down the street I focus my attention on the tailoring store, the library and the new plastic-free store a block away. This is because as a zero waste associate, I have been looking for starting grounds where we can start to build an economy without waste. 

To get to a future where we don’t waste our resources by throwing them away, we need  to move to a “circular economy.” This means that everything we produce will stay in circulation through recycling, reuse, and recovery of materials. 

But how far away are we from a circular economy? I was asked this question recently and the answer is we’re not quite there. But there are a lot of positive signs that we’re moving in the right direction.  

1. Zero waste stores 

The first indicator of our shift to a circular economy is the number of “zero-waste” stores that exist in the United States. A zero-waste store is a business that sells most of its products with little to no packaging. They use methods to package and sell their products, including reduced packaging, refillable containers and non-plastic, recyclable packaging such as paper, aluminum and glass. Some zero-waste stores sell just cleaning or beauty supplies, while others sell dry goods and groceries. They usually sell sustainable brands or items from local small businesses. There are around 1,300 stores that are focused on zero waste or have large zero-waste sections across America. If you live in a city, you most likely are within a couple of miles of a zero-waste store. A positive thought about this is that if there are 1,300 zero-waste stores there must be even more suppliers and companies that sell their sustainable products in those stores. 

2. Fashion 

Next, we have the fashion sector. Even though only 1% of clothes are recycled into new clothing, there are very large second-hand and repair systems in place. Thrift stores are a nearly $11 billion industry; there are 26,958 thrift stores in the U.S. Resale of second-hand goods has been consistently increasing and it is expected to grow by 127% by 2026 going from $96 billion in 2021 to $218 billion in 2026. The number of people who are open to shopping second-hand has also increased especially with re-sale platforms such as Mercari and Poshmark. 

3. Repair and tailor 

There are also 66,214 alteration businesses in the U.S. in 2023. Getting your clothes altered or mended can keep them in circulation longer and lessen the impact they have on the planet. Most clothes we buy are discarded after one year, but by mending or keeping them in our closets longer, we can reduce our need for new clothes. 

When it comes to electronics, there are also 45,830 electronic repair shops in the U.S. with around 130,000 employees. Unfortunately, however, the number of repair shops has been declining over the past couple of years as a result of companies only allowing authorized repairmen to fix electronics and appliances and the inaccessibility of parts needed for repair. There are still positives in the repair industry however because state Right to Repair laws have recently been passed with the most recent law being in New York.  

4. Buildings 

There are also positive trends in the building sector. The most widely used “green building” certification program, called LEED, has credits for recycling content, construction waste management and sustainable sourcing of materials. This incentivizes builders to use recycled materials and reduce their waste. There remain hurdles with fully recycling or reusing old buildings, but the sector is picking up steam on small-scale projects thanks to organizations such as Habitat For Humanity. 

5. Corporate commitments 

Many companies have pledged to increase the recyclability or recycled content of their products, but fewer have commitments to test or implement reuse and refill programs. Companies such as Clorox, Coke,  McCormick, Target, Starbucks and Loreal are some of the only companies that have said they would launch reuse pilot programs by 2025 or in the near future. It is a positive sign that they are talking about refill and reuse programs, but unfortunately, there are no binding agreements that will make it a priority to implement refill and reuse systems. 

6. Reducing waste by prioritizing experiences over stuff

Another positive outlook about the circular economy is that Americans are already used to purchasing experiences in addition to goods. We see this in things such as movie tickets, meals, and drinks from restaurants, concerts, museum passes, plays, recreation passes, professional sports, vacations, and other experiences. 55% of Americans said they would attend a live event by the end of 2021 which is driven by the high rates of younger generations planning on attending events. All of these experiences can be done in ways that do not create waste. 

Traveling has a large pull on young people, and encouraging this rather than encouraging them to buy goods can be a positive for the planet, especially if they use public transportation to travel. Americans take 2.29 domestic trips and 93 million international trips a year. People have the ability to focus on experiences rather than goods, especially if they have access to transportation. 

7. Community support. 

Community is an important building block for a circular economy. For example, libraries can encourage circular economies and communities: Libraries not only lend books, but also CDs, board games, newspapers, magazines, museum passes, and maybe other things. Libraries can often build communities. “Buy nothing” groups, which are community groups that can be found on Facebook or other online platforms, are another important way for people to give away and receive new items – usually for free. Buy nothing groups started as a way for communities to rely on neighbors rather than consumerism for their needs. In many of these groups you not only can give away items, but you can also ask for items others might have. 

Unfortunately, there still are some trends that don’t paint a positive picture of the circular economy. For example, only 364 towns or cities in the US have access to curbside composting. This means that if other people want to compost, they have to bring it to a drop-off site, pay a service to pick it up or build their own. Electronic and appliance companies often are going backward on circularity. Products are made more and more impractically to force people to buy a new product rather than fixing an old one when it breaks. PIRG is fighting for solutions to these problems of waste. 

In 2023, we need policymakers to encourage small businesses to have circular economy practices and our decision-makers to enact zero-waste policies. Small business repair stores, and tool library programs could be helped by “right to repair” policies that would ensure we have access to information and tools we need to fix our things. The 2023 farm bill also has the potential to expand local composting programs in ways that could help farmers and reduce the need for pesticides. 

If we look around, there are so many ways the circular economy is already being implemented in our communities. This does not mean there is no more work to do, it just means there is room for a zero-waste future to flourish. 


Holly Thompson

Former Beyond Plastic, Associate, PIRG

Matt Casale

Former Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG

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