Consumers’ thirst for a cup of coffee shows no sign of abating but retailers’ addiction to plastic cups may be on the wane. Waitrose is to remove disposable coffee cups from stores, Costa has promised to recycle a fifth of the UK’s takeaway coffee cups by 2020, and others are likely to follow suit.

Retailers are also stepping up to make wider plastic-free pledges. Richard Walker of Iceland has promised the retailer’s own-brand goods will be plastic-free by 2023.

Research shows positive sentiment for the Waitrose move [YouGov], and 53% of respondents in another survey say they are actively trying to buy groceries that are not sold in plastic packaging.

Harry Walker

Search data can illuminate the consumer mindset regarding recycling and plastics, and give some indication of where business attention should be focused. A tipping point for plastic came in December last year when searches for ‘plastic recycling’ overtook ‘paper recycling’ and it’s been on an upward trajectory ever since [Google Trends].

Searches for ‘plastics’ alone are flat but there is an upward curve for consumer concern-related queries such as ‘plastic in teabags’ and ‘how does plastic get into the ocean’. A year ago, none of the top 10 questions asked online about plastic reflected these concerns but now four of them show consumer concern.

Consumers are also acting on these worries, with growth of 1,000% for terms such as ‘ways to reduce plastic use’. They are also searching for brands and packaging. When we look at the split of consumers searching in the same session for ‘supermarket brand’ and the term ‘packaging’, the top two are Tesco, which is included in 35% of the sessions, and Iceland in 14%, clearly a nod to their recent announcements.

I have no doubt in time we’ll find a less environmentally damaging substitute for plastic packaging. But until these innovations are tried and tested there are plenty of ways tech can aid people and organisations in assessing, measuring and reducing their own ‘plastics footprint’.

For instance, image content analysis tools like Google’s Cloud Vision API, combined with machine learning, could be used to identify the volume of plastics in a shopper’s basket. Regular tracking (with permission) could present the shopper with data on which they can make informed decisions on their purchasing. The same data could also help retailers and suppliers.

And on the immediate practical level, don’t forget the growth in local search - individual supermarkets should indicate on their websites if they offer recycling facilities and provide relevant advice on preparing packaging for disposal.

Harry Walker is industry head, grocery retail, at Google