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As an economist, I believe that the optimal amount of food spoilage is positive (for most preferences, assuming binding time constraints etc etc). This can create a large level of domestic tension when livingwith those who think the optimal amount is zero.

Kevin, I hear you!

You deserve credit for getting some utility from your pumpkin seeds rather than wasting them altogether , but you're what Krugman would call an "impatient" consumer , preferring immediate gratification to a longer-term orientation that would yield maximum utility.

Next year , think supply-side. Preserve the seeds and plant them the following spring , and never want for pumpkins , or seeds , again. An added bonus is you'll no longer have to mow the grass that you'll displace with your pumpkin patch.



Marko - thanks for commenting - good point on the alternative use of pumpkin seeds.

This raises the issue of whether consuming in general is waste, when we could be saving. Experts decrying people's absence of saving is another variant on the general people-are-stupid-and-wasteful theme.

But your comment, unfortunately, and especially your jump to the conclusion that I'm an "impatient consumer" falls into precisely the trap I'm pointing out in this post - assuming things about people's motivations/preferences, without knowing their constraints. I don't have a garden with lots of sunshine and space to plant pumpkins - the little land I have is dedicated to higher value, lower maintenance items, like rhubarb and herbs and sometimes tomatoes.

I think Pope Francis would say that you left out an important part: sharing the delicious pumpkin seeds with friends and family. Building community should be an important aim of economic activity.

But the implicit value of your own time/labor is so high that it is difficult to make this pass a cost-benefit analysis.

Instead, work an extra hour at your comparative advantage, buy an equally delicious/nutritious snack, and have money leftover.

Ryan: "Instead, work an extra hour at your comparative advantage, buy an equally delicious/nutritious snack, and have money leftover."

Yup, that's the gist of the "it looks like waste but it isn't really" argument.

Of course there's a kind of bounded rationality/constrained optimization/behavioural economics thing going on here. Like a lot of people who try to stay thin while working a sedentary job, I have a "no chips in the house" rule - actually most types of yummy junk food are banned from the premises. So I toast pumpkin seeds partly because they're tasty and nutritious, but also because it's a way of getting around the self-imposed ban on junk food.

John - totally!

Washing the orange slime off the pumpkin seeds is wasteful: of labour, water, and that nutritious and tasty orange slime.

(Fair enough. Good points to make.)

Rawls makes exactly this point in his criticism of pareto optimality as a principle of justice, in his "theory of justice".

This reminds me of the other source of domestic tension, the practice of washing used plastic containers (sour cream, etc.), then packing them off in diesel-burning trucks to recycling centres, where the tubs are eventually stacked and sent off, in diesel-burning trucks, to landfill sites.

Treating a silly topic seriously, this to me sounds like a market failure. I would not be so quick to call those individuals who toss out their goo-encrusted pumpkin seeds inefficient, it's quite probably that they value their time and kitchen space over the dubious value of roasted pumpkin seeds. After all, the original post here is being quite normative in calling them "delicious."

Instead, we need a market in the intermediate good, of scraped-out pumpkin seeds. Unfortunately, given decentralized domestic production of gooed-seeds, the quantity supplied by any individual household is likely to be inelastic and small. It would seem to be a significant logistics problem to get these intermediate seeds from unwanting producers (my neighbours) to a wanting consumer (my stomach), with any mutual benefit likely to be outweighed by transaction costs.

I was helping to clean up my neighbourhood's "Pumpkin Fest" last night - volunteers collect pumpkins on Nov. 1 and they are set up and lit along a central street and people come and check them out and have warm cider etc...

There were several passers by that asked me if the old pumpkins were going to be used for soup or if they should/could be. They were all very earnest about it.

Now, using old carved pumpkins that have had candles burning in them for soup seems a little bit beyond to me. Many of them were rotten, and getting any good flesh out of the hundreds of pumpkins that were there would have taken a significant effort, and most of it would still be tossed. Not to mention that jack o lantern pumpkins are not very good breeds for cooking.

In any event, it was interesting that so many people independently had the same thought, but obviously had not considered the challenges or time/effort. They saw what seemed like waste and had a comment about it, though when I told them they were free to take whatever pumpkins they wanted in order to make soup themselves, nobody took up the offer!

By the way, I do roast my pumpkin seeds (and squash sometimes too, with soup squashes that have good seeds). However, I try to minimize the effort - I am not that thorough about cleaning and drying, saving a lot of time but getting 95% of the benefit. It is not a binary position on the curve! Also, some people enjoy cooking and the process, obviously changing the analysis.

Nick: "that nutritious and tasty orange slime." Is it really tasty or are you just poking fun at me?

Do you think I should add another diagram showing washing and toasting pumpkin seeds as being inefficient? Would that make the point clearer?

Course the waste/not-waste thing that you and I disagree on is pre-heating ovens/boiling water before adding pasta, where you clearly fail to recognize the risk of (wastefully) ruining one's baking due to lack of oven pre-heating, or (wastefully) ending up with sub-optimal pasta.

Shangwen, Whitfit - "They saw what seemed like waste and had a comment about it, though when I told them they were free to take whatever pumpkins they wanted in order to make soup themselves, nobody took up the offer!"

For both the plastic containers and the pumpkins, it's this unwillingness to acknowledge, yes, we're creating waste, and we've chosen to do that, because it's fun/convenient/enjoyable to live life like that. Somehow we want to partake in rituals, like washing out plastic tubs, that make us feel good, that cleanse us of our guilt.

MAjromax - transaction costs, yes, very much so.

So far ...

Now, redo that curve using an alternative piece of evidence. Due to an allergy similar to nuts, pumpkin seeds may be effectively poisonous, and keeping them around (never mind getting pumpkin seed fumes all over the house) is a life safety risk.

I suppose you could consider "I want to remain alive" a value judgement, but I think that's pushing the point a little far.

In that circumstance, "zero" will always be the more optimal choice of pumpkin seeds compared to any non-zero value. Would that result in the Pareto curve above becoming a vertical line through the origin?

This is a great post. I realise now that I've been wandering through life with a very analytically unexamined concept of waste, and now I'm going to be on my toes every time I talk about it.

Frances: "Do you think I should add another diagram showing washing and toasting pumpkin seeds as being inefficient? Would that make the point clearer?"

No. Your post was very clear (and good). One more diagram would be...........redundant.

(I just like the taste of orange slime, and I'm lazy.)

Nick - thanks. Is the orange slime good roasted?

W. Peden - it's really just an example of what David Mitchell said much more cleverly https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zoz5EuIF_y8

Ryan Murphy - I use a rule of thumb for my leisure time charge-out rate of 1/2 my pay rate. (I figure, if my employer uses a figure of double my hourly wage for a charge-out rate, this is a totally reasonable assumption.)

As a corollary, this is why there is a rule in my house: "We don't wash garbage". The city may be forcing me to recycle (pointlessness well-stated above by Shangwen) but nowhere in their instructions does it say the stuff needs to be clean. So we keep it outside because it's smelly when it's not washed, and we save hot water and time.

I would rather do away with this sorting business altogether - it takes at least 10 minutes @ $25/hour of my leisure time (see above) each week to collect and package properly the various flavours of garbage, compost, and recycling (6 different packaging methods required, at last count) - that's $5/week or $260/year. I'm sure if they were to modernize the waste collection it would not cost us that $260/year on our property taxes. Even if it did, I would have 520 minutes of my life back.

I'd been thinking of the same thing in terms of all the DIY stuff lately that used to be government services, that we are now doing on our own leisure time instead (finding and downloading T4 slips, getting mail from a community mailbox, helping infirm members of the family do the same...)

I really enjoy your posts on economics at the personal level. How about copying some of the excess urban fruit programs, as in the links below, and collect the pumpkin seeds in the containers that otherwise would have gone to the landfill. There would be economies of scale in processing and handling vs. the limited amount from an individual pumpkin carver, and perhaps the seed savers could receive a portion of the now snackified pumpkin seeds in return. ( varied small scale tie ins come to mind...maybe the pumpkin vendors could get involved, school snack programs etc. )Much better than simply shipping slime coated seeds and plastic containers to the landfill by diesel powered truck.

Here’s a NY Times article on the Berkeley/Oakland and other programs. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/10/dining/10Fruit.html?_r=0 and here’s a link to the Portland, Oregon site. http://www.portlandfruit.org

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