More pressures shape 'citizen consumers'

Most people have never heard of a circular economy but experts say it's what Australia needs.

A circular economy involves more than switching to renewable energy to cut carbon emissions or adding another bin with a different coloured lid to kerbside rubbish collection.

Rather, more reuse, repair, buying second-hand, re-engineering for longer use, leasing, donating and recycling could be built into the design, manufacturing and sale of goods.

The rising cost of living has triggered more awareness and anxiety about consumption and waste, Commonwealth Bank's circular economy expert David Martin told a conference on Tuesday.

But the deeper motivations are different across the generations, he said.

Younger Australians say they want to go circular because of climate change, while baby boomers and older Australians want to send less to landfill, according to a CommBank survey of 5600 consumers.

He said there is a groundswell of support for the circular economy but it is yet to hit the masses.

Most (61 per cent) had never heard of the term, while 15 per cent had heard of the circular economy but didn't know what it meant, the consumer insights survey found.

"Another problem is that the amount of stuff we have is just so big and we see it every time we turn the corner in our house," he said.

For example, an estimated 146 million unused items of clothing are gathering dust, despite many saying they have a regular spring clean and a quarter saying they have a clean out at least once a year.

"And 14 per cent never do it, which blows my mind," he told the Australian Circular Economy Conference.

For businesses, the overwhelming feedback was there weren't enough options to help customers reduce waste.

But consumers say they want businesses to do more.

And just over a third of consumers were willing to pay more to support a business that was more sustainable.

Nicole Garofano, head of circular economy development at environmental organisation Planet Ark, said governments should be encouraging "citizen consumers" with more information and tax breaks for repairs.

"So every time we stand and look at the shelf, is there an opportunity to make those decisions - do I buy or not?"

She said citizen consumers had a different mindset - it's not just about consuming for convenience or prestige.

Recycling can break down bottles, mobile phones and other items and reprocess them into new materials, while a re-user can buy or sell clothes, vehicles or tools and circulate them through the economy.

Consumers may not be involved in the design stage, but they can make decisions about purchases.

Dr Garofano said they should consider if the product will last a long time, whether they have the right to repair and whether it can be deconstructed instead of ending up as landfill.

Leading chemical engineer Professor Ali Abbas, Australia's first chief circular engineer, is working with the independent Circular Australia organisation on ways to change the economy and industry.

For example, when a household buys a new solar energy system, they could lease the solar panels and have them maintained and repaired for longer use and eventually recycled.

Breakthroughs in processing also mean manufacturers can start "designing out" waste and pollution to tackle complex crises, Prof Abbas said.

"It goes above and beyond decarbonisation and includes biodiversity loss," he said.

But he said it cannot rely on scientific processes alone - economic structures and thinking will need to change.