How Do We Change Public Attitudes and Behavior?

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | August 16, 2010 10:41 am

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.

S068.jpgBut 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?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Conservation, Culture, Energy, Food

Comments (11)

  1. Anthony McCarthy

    The only effective means of changing peoples’ behavior en masse, is through the media and the media is in the hands of corporate hacks.

    Reinstitute the Fairness Doctrine, community service requirements, ownership diversity requirements. Make it easier for people and organizations who are lied about in the media to seek effective redress (with punishment for those who bring frivolous or false complaints). It took a long time to make the yellow journalism of the 19th and early 20th centuries be considered as garbage. Though it was never really suppressed it wasn’t what led the public discourse as it has since Murdoch was imported to do exactly that. The press has turned into a danger to representative democracy and that wasn’t unintended.

  2. azmyth

    Culture may be useful in convincing people to treat it as more scarce/valuable than they have historically, but it is not the most simple way to deal with this problem. Food has a massive amount of subsidies that is currently making artificially cheap. Simply getting rid of food subsidies might be enough, and if there is still a problem, institute a Pigouvian tax. I don’t personally think food or energy waste is a big deal. Agricultural technology has been expanding at an incredible rate over the last century, and I don’t see any signs of it slowing down.

  3. A price on carbon should make food more expensive, which will incentivize people to be smarter with it.

  4. Sean McCorkle

    A while ago in a NY Times article (darned if I can find the reference now -sorry), Michael Pollan stated that back before WWII, a major fraction of the US population got their vegetables from their very own gardens, not the grocery store. I’d like to see that come back. When you grow your own – put your time and energy into it – it changes your perspective about waste and recycling. I’m sure it will increase home composting and recycling awareness. It also reduces transportation costs. This may not be just a pipe dream either: recently the city of Cleveland has been tearing up blocks of abandoned, wrecked houses and creating community gardens, going so far as to even teach folks how to garden.

    BTW on the subject of food in the US, I highly recommend anything Michael Pollan has written – books, articles, anything.

  5. Neuro-conservative

    The whole point of our civilization is that I do not have to grow my own food or eat bread that is not fresh. Your project is doomed to failure.

  6. I’ve commented on this a couple of ways:

    FINALLY! Some sense about the “sell-by” date

    and also this:

    Food waste pickup in the city

    Change public attitudes? Participate, and spread the word. And Franchise good ideas!

  7. Sigmund

    My local supermarket doesn’t throw away its day old bakery items. It simply packages them up in bundles and sells these at a cheap price. As supermarket companies are not charities there will be some sort of trade-off between selling off the day old bakery items cheaply (if this affects the sale of the higher priced fresh items) and simply throwing them away.

  8. Sean McCorkle

    The whole point of our civilization is that I do not have to grow my own food or eat bread that is not fresh.

    I think that in France and other european countries, eating fresh bread IS being civilized. Are you implying that the U.S. wasn’t civilized before WWII because a lot of folks grew their own food?

  9. Hi Sheril,

    That’s definitely the golden question! I posted some ideas over at Age of Engagement. Let me know what you think. I will have a follow up post later today on a new study out.

  10. Teach best practices to kids in school – the younger the better. Two benefits:
    1. They will bring it home to their parents and coach them. Kids cut through the cloud of a parents busy day better than any news show.

    2. They will grow up doing it naturally. It takes a few years for them to reach adulthood, but item one covers things in the short term.

    Some examples: Recycling. Kids kick-started that revolution back in the 70’s. Other examples – kids are great at coaching parents on things like wearing seat belts, not smoking, etc.

    Jay Kimball


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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