The Sciences

How Do We Change Public Attitudes and Behavior?

The IntersectionBy Sheril KirshenbaumAug 16, 2010 2:41 PM

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In my recent OpEd with Michael Webber, we discuss the energy embedded in food waste--which accounts for at least 2% of the nation's energy budget. We point out some ways to waste less such as reducing standard portion sizes and providing the right incentives for businesses, but acknowledge that ultimately, it comes down to consumer choices:

Foremost, the public needs to be better educated about proper storage of foods to keep them edible for longer. Shoppers could be supplied with easy-to-digest, accurate information about the proper shelf life of products, so that they are able to plan meals more carefully and end up with less spoilt food at the end of the week. Another problem is "use by" dates, which are extremely conservative and can encourage consumers to throw away perfectly edible food. Similarly, "sell by" dates are usually meant as guidelines for retailers to ensure they do not keep stock too long, not as guidance to consumers about when the food will spoil. We need to improve the way we label foods. Initiatives targeted at consumers could also have ripple-out effects: not only will educating people about food waste reduce pressure on their wallets, it would also lead to fewer trips to the store, saving on gasoline and reducing carbon emissions. Most important, it would help to promote a culture that places a higher value on food, energy, and the way their complex relationship affects us all.

But tackling this issue will be very tricky. Consider: Everyday bakeries throw out day old goods, catering companies dump excess meals, supermarkets do away with blemished fruits, and that's just the tip of the iceberg... I've long been a firm believer in the power of personal choice and am curious to hear your ideas. How might we shift public attitudes to be less wasteful and save energy on a massive scale?

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