I read an article that hit on one of my pet peeves last week. It was about food labels. I am a self-admitted garbage disposal and I enjoy leftovers. I have a strong stomach. I’m a bit put off by manufacturer’s using labels that are confusing at best and cause a lot of waste at their worst.

“There’s always a strict food label date enforcer in every household. They say it’s the law!” But it’s not. It’s just a suggestion. We have a big food waste problem in this country and labeling foods more clearly could help.

Here’s a couple of things to know that might help.

“Open Dating” is a calendar date that helps stores determine how long to display a product. In addition, they use a phrase such as “sell by” or “use by” to explain the meaning of the date. These labels are found primarily on perishable foods, such as meat and dairy products.

“Closed Dating” is a series of production numbers to indicate when a product was made. They primarily appear on shelf stable products such as, cans and boxes of food. They indicate when a product should be used for best quality and have nothing to do with safety. Except for infant formulas, product dates are not expiration dates.

Some industry groups are pushing to narrow the list of food date labels to only two options: “Best If Used By,” relating to freshness and quality, and “Use By,” which would refer to the last safe day to eat highly perishable foods. While some food companies follow this two-date system, as far as the federal government is concerned, no date that’s stamped on a package refers to safety. There’s no “law.”

So I got to thinking. Maybe this same confusion exists in our busy world, where we try to be as productive as possible. I mean, maybe we could use some clearer labeling. Best If Used By could be Best If Done By. Use By could be Done By. Simple phrases that everyone could agree on. Best If Done By would mean everyone would be pleased with the time frame that the task was completed. Done By would mean it’s done by this date or don’t bother.

Wouldn’t this help to ensure there was no miscommunication about the expected sense of urgency? Wouldn’t it clear up any ambiguity? Wouldn’t it make it easier to organize our To-Do lists and email boxes? Wouldn’t it make project management less cumbersome? Or am I over simplifying? Am I foolish for thinking that labels hold some key to ending wastefulness in food, energy or time? I think the answer is yes. As much as I’d like to think these two labels would bring forth great savings in time and spent energy, I believe they would only be small tools that could assist, but not solve the wastefulness. They certainly can be useful guidelines like food labels, but know that they require both mass adoption and interpretation. And they should.

What separates us humans from animals is our ability to think beyond what is, to think about what could be or what ought to be. This same difference is what will separate us from the incredibly capable robots that will soon move among us.

So while labels, food and otherwise have their place, there is no “law” and I suggest we view them as indicators. Use your nose, use your hands and use your knowledge to take a “nibble” and see if there’s goodness under the label or if it’s time to dispose. We just may be able to impact the waste around us.