Over 450 exhibitors

Larger Packaging Innovations impresses in Birmingham

Organisers were anticipating around 7,000 visitors
Organisers were anticipating around 7,000 visitors

Packaging Innovations returned to the NEC in Birmingham this week with 20% more floorspace and a positive reception from exhibitors, as sustainability once again proved the dominant talking point.

Taking place in three halls – 6, 7 and 8 – on Wednesday and Thursday this week (21 and 22 February), the show boasted a record 454 suppliers split across the three events – Packaging Innovations, Empack, and Contract Pack & Fulfilment – and attracted 6,900 unique visitors.

As has been the way for the last few years at the show, all things sustainability were at the top of the agenda as packaging producers continue to address a series of new or impending legislative changes, as well as changing consumer sentiment towards plastics and greater understanding and development of alternative materials.

Printweek visited the show on Wednesday and found that many exhibitors were quickly swamped by people – a high quality of visitors according to everybody we spoke to.

Coveris was at the show to – among other things – discuss MonoFlex Thermoform, a recyclable and sustainable alternative to non-recyclable materials currently used for thermoforming packaging in food sectors. It was also highlighting its No Waste vision to visitors.

Will Mercer, R&D director for the company’s Paper business unit, told Printweek: “On the booth we’ve got quite a large focus on our business unit ReCover, which is where we’ve invested in driving circularity of materials. We have purchased a site down in Blaenavon in Wales and, in addition to that, we have a new wash facility within our Louth facility, which is where we work with customers to bring back redundant stock and to wash the print and upscale the value of that material.”

He added the company comes to the show because customers are looking for what’s new in the market and, as Coveris is a multi-platform business, the event gives it an opportunity to show customers a broad spectrum of products.

“We’ve seen quite a few new customers and existing customers. A lot of it is around circularity and materials designed for recycling, and we’re also seeing a lot of interest in board-based packaging, and quite a bit in terms of the ReCover side of it.”

Exhibiting at the show for the first time this year was The Printing Charity, which was on hand to inform the packaging sector about the kinds of help it can offer.

Relationship manager Gary Giles said he thought that around 30% of the charity’s time was currently spent in the packaging sector, “and that’s growing, because this is still a growing sector within our industry – it’s quite a diverse area of the market and it’s one that’s growing with our support.”

He added: “I think people’s mental health is where we’ve really seen an impact and where the helpline is [supporting people]. We’re engaged with about 300 companies across the sectors and we’re supporting something like 26,000 employees and their households through the helpline.

“At the show I’ve spoken to a wide sector of people from print, print finishing, box making and tool making, so it’s diverse. But we’re here to support whatever walk of life supply into the packaging industry. We’re more known in the print sector, but I think there’s a growing awareness in the packaging sector and we’re working hard to become a household name within the wider industry.”

Saica Flex, which specialises in plastic packaging, was showcasing a raft of its latest products at the show, including a new metallised MonoPE triplex structure; a mono-material pack with a premium metallised appearance, high barrier, versatile, and adapted to customer needs.

Lloyd Dicks, Saica Flex sales director for UK Dry Foods, said: “We felt it was important this year because, as a division in the UK, Flex has four sites plus a sales office in Cambridge. We do an awful lot of work in designing for circular economy – looking at mono materials, mono-OPP/CPP but also the metallised PE pack that we’ve done as well.

“That particular pack is a mono material substrate, suitable for a variety of applications both food and non-food, including for the home and personal care market and the dry foods market. It’s generated quite an interest on the stand, which we’re really pleased about, because it appeals to that circular economy piece.

“The show has been amazing, we’ve got a lot of presence here, but the footfall has been amazing and we’ve seen a lot of people from different businesses – smaller, local independents and it’s been really good to see a lot of the multinational organisations being represented too, and from a multitude of different backgrounds and markets.”

A lunchtime fireside chat session on Wednesday asked, ‘can environmental improvement be achieved without harming customer convenience?’.

This has proven a difficult balance for some retailers, restaurants, and food and drinks manufacturers to get right over the last few years as they strive to introduce more sustainable packaging for customers that are increasingly demanding it as quickly as possible.

But the replacements are then sometimes criticised by consumers if they are less functional than their predecessors.

The session was moderated by Foodservice Packaging Association (FPA) executive director Martin Kersh while panellists included Nikki Grainge, manager of packaging development at Waitrose, and Helen McFarlane, sustainability consultant for McDonald’s.

McFarlane said: “Our customers are definitely environmentally aware and asking us to do more to help the planet. Climate change and the environment are top of customers’ minds, and they see that as translatable to what we’re doing with our packaging.

“So our packaging and waste relates directly to our impact on the environment in our customers’ eyes, although there is obviously more that we’re doing behind the scenes.

“Our customers want us to make the right choices, to make them feel good about continuing to come to our restaurants and to be a loyal brand fan.”

She added: “The right packaging should come from a recycled, renewable or certified source and it should be recyclable or compostable at the end of its life.”

Grainge then commented: “Our customers at Waitrose trust us to do the right thing and that weighs heavy on the shoulders because while they trust us to do the right thing, they don’t always know what the right thing is. So it’s part of our remit to educate them and help make it as easy as possible for them.

“The most important thing for us is certified sources, Chain of Custody, and all of that, but we also need to make it as easy as possible for the consumer to get rid of at the end. We hear a lot from our consumers that there’s too much plastic and not enough cardboard, and that comes with its own weighing up in terms of one against the other with carbon.”

The switch a few years ago by McDonald’s to paper straws for its drinks was brought up during the session, as the company’s first iteration of the straws had received many customer complaints for their performance. McFarlane said the business was now several iterations in with the straws, which have been continuously evolved to make them stronger.

Back on the show floor, HP Indigo UK & Ireland business manager for folded carton Tony Lock told Printweek the show had been “really busy, with a constant flow of customers” for several hours.

“We’ve had a real nice mix between brands – some of the biggest consumer brands in the world, but also folded carton converters looking at digital, and general commercial printers looking at packaging.

“Being here this year is a reflection of our renewed focus in packaging. It’s really a carton and pouch show for us, and I think it’s a nice lead-in for Drupa to us.”

Denmaur marketing and sustainability director Danny Doogan was at the show with Delipac, whose PFAS-free food and drink packaging products Denmaur exclusively stocks in the UK.

He told Printweek there were now more Delipac cups in circulation than there ever had been before, and that the products were proving increasingly popular at events, including sporting events, and that several large brands had also started to adopt Delipac’s products recently.

He said the continued Delipac presence at the event was about “spreading the word and meeting connections, and joining all the dots because we’re getting converters come up, who we sell to in the first instance, but also end users”.

Delipac CEO Paul Spring added: “PFAS is a threat to our health and packaging known to have PFAS is starting to be banned [already in Denmark and some US states, he said], and that’s going to gather some momentum and I think will be equally centre stage with plastic reduction.

“There are products out there that claim to be recyclable or compostable, but when you break it all down, the recyclable element more often than not, particularly with barrier products such as this, is limited and can only be recycled in specialist waste streams. Compostable, more often than not will only work with industrial composting, not with natural composting.

“We’ve gone for a product we like to look at as comparable to paper and cardboard. That’s easily recyclable anywhere, and that’s how we view this product, so we had to have it certified through ISO registered laboratories to prove that it can be recyclable and compostable exactly like a sheet of paper.”

Besides sustainability, other trends around the show included the rise of alternative materials, an increase in onshoring and reshoring due to supply chains being affected by various well-documented current global events, and clever new pack formats.

The Innovation Showcase area of the show highlighted 10 new products in one place, with Printweek particularly impressed by a bubble wrap made from 100% paper from Leipa UK, and a plastic-free blister pack from Facer.

Show marketing manager Naomi Stewart told Printweek it was important that this year’s show focused heavily again on sustainability and the circular economy.

“Sustainability is still the key thing – I think from the past events to now, this is probably the most sustainable one in terms of exhibitors and what we do as a show.

“And we’re just trying to tap into different markets. We’ve had more panel discussions this year and more collaboration.

“I’ve seen more accessible packaging this year and just better designs – e.g. smaller for e-commerce.

“The show is a good place to bring the community together, and it’s the biggest packaging event in the industry.”

Next year’s show will be held again in February, in larger halls once more at the NEC – 3 and 3a – as the event continues to expand its floorspace.