With an increase in food availability, greater access to health care, and improved life expectancy, the global human population is expected to rise considerably in coming years, bringing with it a host of interesting waste management problems. When the number of people grows, so does the amount of debris they generate. This population increase presents a challenge to society in many ways—one of the most interesting being the impact that older generations will have.
Because our global population is aging and the number of elderly adults is on the rise, the future may see a marked shift in the amount of waste we generate and how we handle it. In looking at the larger issue, it is becoming increasingly clear that the behavior, perceptions, and attitudes of older people will have considerable effect on the nature of waste management. It’s pretty well established how to teach children about being eco-conscious, but—to use the old adage—can an old dog learn new tricks?
Population data for the U.K. suggests retired people generally keep pretty high levels of wealth, thus maintaining a certain level of spending power. Because they have less work and more time, they are able to partake in some serious consumerism. If societal waste is “a symbol of prosperity,” the risk of their increased contribution to global waste may be considerable. Older adults have the ability to spend their money and plenty of time on their hands, two variables that contribute to more disposable and impulsive purchases. If this behavior is not addressed in the context of waste management, the world could begin to see a disproportionate shift in the generation of garbage.
Habits vs. New Behavior
Pro-environmental attitudes translate into eco-conscious individual decisions like riding a bike instead of driving a car. In turn, an awareness of what it takes to help the planet depends on education and a level of understanding about science. Being a friend of the environment also requires someone to grasp the magnitude of their individual actions when it comes to consumerism and personal behavior. So, the question then becomes, how do older generations see such things? The answer has many shades.
Older adults are the product of a different time —a time when buying something of quality and reusing it was not only necessary, but pragmatic. Not so long ago, plastic did not dominate the shelves of every store; goods were made of wood, ceramics, leather, textiles, glass, and other, more natural materials. There was much less packaged food, and people tended to cook with fresh ingredients. People from older generations are typically more in touch with the concept of buying an item for the long term, and choosing the best quality goods that they can afford. For many of these people, buying something on an impulsive whim is a foreign concept. In other words, these older individuals may be more practical and place less of a priority on convenience and speed. This attitude could certainly make waste management easier, because it naturally deters people from being wasteful. As everyone knows, returning to past concepts of value could be an antidote to our current throw-away culture.
That said, there is also the chance that older people will abandon these practices if given the opportunity. For example, the “make do and mend” culture of the Depression and World War II was not a choice so much as a necessity driven by the realities of economic collapse and global conflict. The lack of money and shopping options may have been a constraint back then, but it’s not now. In contrast, the 21st century offers older adults—along with the rest of us—a world where cheap, low-quality goods are widely available, and we are encouraged to spend our money freely.
In addition, as people age, they may lose some physical abilities. Basic chores take more time and effort, and many older adults must rely on the help of others for everyday tasks. Given these increasing physical limitations, it’s easier to make decisions based on what is easy, fast, and readily available. An older person who is ill, tired, or in pain may not have the time or wherewithal to make more eco-conscious decisions or think in the long term. In addition, as a person’s health declines, so does his or her ability to repair broken items or summon the fine motor skills needed to improve on what they already have. In such a situation, it’s simply easier to buy new a replacement when something breaks.
However, it’s also true that older adults may have a stronger sense of their connection to future generations than younger people do. As we age, we naturally start to think about the legacy we want to leave after we are gone. Those older adults with grandchildren may feel particularly strongly that they want younger generations to enjoy the benefits of a healthy ecosystem, as they did in their youth. This altruistic perspective may lead them to make more environmentally friendly decisions.
In the end, a comprehensive understanding of how aging generations may affect waste management is still being formed. However, it’s clear the issue should be carefully considered. If we are to sustain effective waste management practices in a world of nine billion people, we will need to determine how to best encourage eco-conscious behavior in all people, including those who have lived on our planet the longest.