Visitors flock back to bigger Packaging Innovations

It was all smiles at the packed Hall 1 of the NEC
It was all smiles at the packed Hall 1 of the NEC

Packaging Innovations returned this week and both exhibitor and visitor numbers were up, with packaging producers keen to get their ducks in a row ahead of a series of legislative changes.

The show, held Wednesday and Thursday this week (15 and 16 February) at the NEC in Birmingham, attracted around 6,500 visitors and around 350 exhibitors to Hall 1, an increase of around 25% on both counts.

Around 80 of the exhibitors signed up were Turkish, although a small handful were unable to come due to the recent earthquake in Turkey. Organiser Easyfairs placed boards on the stands of the absent companies to ensure they could still get leads, and to highlight how visitors knew how they could donate money to associated charities.

Printweek visited the show yesterday, and exhibitors reported that while the first day had been generally busier, they were happy with the second day too, with queues to get in when the doors opened.

Burntwood, Staffordshire-based Mercian Labels’ managing director Adrian Steele told Printweek: “The real message for us is post-Covid getting back to normality. Even last year, it was the first year back out of Covid and there while there was an amount of interest, people were still quite reserved about doing new projects and [working with] new suppliers, whereas this year it’s a completely different change of atmosphere and theme.”

He added, though, that there were many challenges in the label industry currently, including a soft market due to the current economic environment – although said there were signs that confidence was coming back – as well as the difficulty in the supply chains, meaning customers have turned to Mercian Labels for reliability, where their own supply chains have failed.

He said the UPM strikes in Finland from January to April last year had a knock-on effect for much of 2022.

“The biggest challenge is, when you go and restart that supply chain, it’s all so empty. We didn’t see normality until well into Q4. Now we are probably ok – lead times have come back down to normal.”

Mercian was showing products including its sustainable Wood Film Labels, a material that it said offers a sustainable and fully renewable alternative that performs exactly as its plastic counterparts.

Another printer exhibiting was Newton Abbot-based Newton Print, which prints litho runs of typically 1,000 to 300,000 and has cutting and gluing in-house.

Sales manager Nathan Besley told Printweek: “We found the show really busy yesterday and we had lots of enquiries. Lead times is quite critical for people at the moment, maybe due to board shortages.

“We’ve been finding that a lot of where we can help and bring those down for companies is our fast turnaround times. Three to four weeks is our standard, whereas industry [standard] is anywhere from about six to 10. We’ve now got quite a few leads to follow up – we’ve not done a lot of shows so brand awareness is key.”

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

He told Printweek that Delipac had enjoyed a busy show, particularly on the first day and that one of the major trends of the event this year was “sustainability on every stand - there’s a lot more knowledge about sustainability”.

“This show works well because of the innovation part, there’s more eagerness and – in some cases – almost a frantic eagerness to look for these kinds of products. People want to get out of single-use plastic.”

Doogan said Delipac products are popular in the takeaway and fast-food area, but that with its sustainability benefits, it had also started to be used at major music and sporting events and festivals. Delipac claims it is also the only manufacturer of UKCA mark pint and half-pint paper cups.

A lunchtime session yesterday, part 2 of the Big Responsibility Debate, gave an overview on the new legislative measures set to come into force that will impact the packaging sector over the coming years and asked three experts how they were addressing these challenges.

Chair of the session, Jane Bevis, executive chair at OPRL, said: “Some of you will have been caught by the plastics tax that came in 11 months ago, and HMRC are still trying to work out what the rules are in some areas. Some of you will have been caught by the number of products and bans that are coming in, things like stirrers, plastic straws and the like, some of you will now be thinking about what it is you should be doing to comply with the new data requirements that came out in December – you’ve got to make your first return by July this year.

She added: “Some of you will be working towards what you need to do for a DRS [Deposit Return Scheme] launch in Scotland this August, and of course, 1 April next year we’ve got EPR [Extended Producer Responsibility] taking effect, so that’s quite a big scale list.”

Also commenting on one of the major issues for the sector that came as a reaction to the release of documentary series Blue Planet II in 2017, which threw plastic packaging into public focus, Bevis said: “Since Blue Planet, and the whole demonisation of plastic, a lot of people have moved out of actually readily recyclable plastic packaging into materials and formats that in reality aren’t recyclable. Actually they’re going to have to rethink those decisions.”

Other trends around the show included automation and robotics. Swedish firm TAWI, which has a UK base in Northampton, showed off a selection of its robotic lifters and told Printweek the kit, which enables one person to do what would otherwise be a two-person job, is not intended to replace workers, but rather support them.

Product launches themselves were harder to spot than usual, with the previous Birmingham show only taking place nine months ago, but the Innovation Showcase highlighted some of the most interesting in one place, including Supa Life’s paper bottle products for Eco-mate cleaning liquids; the bottles are designed using only natural materials that biodegrade back to nature.

The area also featured a high-end, fully recyclable product for coffee packaging from A. Hatzopoulos, and Rippatape Halo, a patent pending paper-based tear tape from Filtrona Tapes that provides a sustainable offering for the easy opening of paper and board packaging.

Show organisers were very happy with how the show had been received. Talking to Printweek, the show’s senior marketing manager, James Montero MacColl, said: “It’s been great to see the buzz in the halls, everyone getting along, queues at the door and things like that. The show has almost become a bit of a centre for business in the sense that before Covid people would come and make contacts and business was made, but people are really coming onto stands and closing deals at the show now.”

“With packaging, a lot of the clients that come to this show are potentially used to buying packaging from Asia and China.

“But because of Covid and China being so closed until recently, it’s made people reassess their packaging and start to buy from European and closer to home suppliers.”

He also hailed the resilience and “quite remarkable” innovation that had come from the packaging sector, even during the challenging times of the past three years.

Show marketing manager Naomi Stewart added she was expecting to see a focus on quality over quantity in the sector – a number of other exhibitors also told Printweek they had seen brands reduce their number of SKUs since the pandemic.

“I would also say we will see more inclusivity in how products are made, especially bottle caps and in pharmaceuticals packaging,” she said.

Next year the show will increase its floorspace by around 20% as it moves to three halls at the NEC – 6, 7 and 8 – on the 21 and 22 February 2024.