If it recently felt like you were being watched while shopping, you might have been.
During April and May, volunteers observed shoppers at local stores to see what kind of bags they carried their purchases in. It was the first stage of 'Pack Your Bags,' a public education campaign launched by the Otsego County Conservation Association. The campaign's goal is to increase the number of people bringing reusable shopping to stores.

"For us to know if the campaign is successful, we had to get an idea of how many people are already using reusable shopping bags," said Jeff O'Handley, OCCA's program director. "We broke shopper behavior down into five categories and counted the number of shoppers in each category."

During the survey period, volunteers from OCCA's recycling committee, along with members of the League of Women Voters of Cooperstown Area, observed nearly 900 shoppers at 17 locations around Otsego County. Stores included grocery, home improvement, sporting goods, hardware and discount stores. Volunteers spent anywhere from five to thirty minutes observing shoppers.

"The nice thing about the survey was you could spend a few minutes doing it before or after doing your own shopping," O'Handley said. "It was pretty easy to use."
"I was surprised to see how few people brought their own shopping bags," said Martha Clarvoe, chair of OCCA's recycling committee and one of the volunteer observers, "but I do recognize how hard this habit is to start."

Overall, 74% of shoppers used single-use plastic carryout bags for all stores. Only 9% brought their own bags. Other categories included paper bags only (1%), combination of reusable and single-use paper or plastic (2%), and no bag (13%). When broken out by store type, more shoppers (11%) brought their own bags to grocery stores.
"People are comfortable bringing their own bags to grocery stores," O'Handley said. "Part of our campaign is to remind people that they can—and should—bring reusable bags to any store."

New York State recently enacted a law that will ban the distribution of single-use plastic bags at most stores, set to go into effect on March 1, 2020. According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Americans use approximately 100 billion plastic bags each year, which require 12 million barrels of oil to produce. An estimated 50 million plastic bags end up as litter every year, and become a choking hazard for wildlife and a source of toxic pollution in our soil and water. While paper bags decompose quickly in the landscape, it takes significantly more energy and water to manufacture them than plastic bags, and they are more costly to ship.
"Most people are surprised to find that paper bags have a higher carbon footprint than plastic bags," O'Handley said. "The best answer to the question, 'Paper or plastic?' is 'Neither.'"

OCCA's 'Pack Your Bags' campaign includes print, radio and online ads and announcements promoting reusable bags, and will run through late August. OCCA will conduct a second set of observations in September and October.
"We're hoping to see a big change in the number of people bringing their own bags," O'Handley said. "It can make quite a difference for our world."

For more information, contact OCCA at (607)547-4488 or visit occainfo.org/PackYourBags.