Coveney launches public consultation on a proposal to ban microbeads

Published on Monday, 13 Feb 2017
Minister Simon Coveney

The Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Simon Coveney T.D., today (13 February 2017), launched a public consultation process in relation to a proposed legislative ban on certain products containing plastic microbeads. The public consultation process will last 6 weeks, closing on 24 March 2017.

The Minister said ‘I am very worried about the level of plastic litter that ends up in our seas and oceans. This includes plastics microbeads found in some cosmetics, body care products, toothpastes, scouring agents and detergents and I am determined to address this issue. It is concerning to think that all plastic material which has ever ended up in the marine environment will reside there for many centuries to come, unless it is somehow removed. I regard microplastic pollution as one of most significant marine environmental challenges of the 21st century’.

While plastic microbeads represent only a fraction of the microplastics in our oceans, it has still been estimated that many billions are being washed into the world’s rivers, lakes and seas each year. Once in our seas and rivers they can last for centuries without breaking down. Due to their shape and size, they can be confused for food by fish and other aquatic creatures and they cannot be removed once they are in the marine environment.

The Minister further commented that ’I am anxious to get the views of relevant stakeholders including public regulatory entities, manufacturers, importers, retailers, consumers, environmental non-governmental organisations and other concerned members of civil society on this very important issue. Accordingly I am inviting interested parties to submit their comments by completing the online questionnaire on the Department’s website:

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Marine Litter:
Marine litter is a persistent problem affecting all regions of the world. The  extent of the marine litter problem and the harm it causes to the environment has yet to be fully established and is subject to ongoing research.  However, it is clear that this is an issue that we need to address. Marine litter also causes socio-economic harm, such as affecting tourism and consumer confidence in seafood.

The extent of the world’s marine litter is attributed to increased human pressures on the oceans and the failure to implement and enforce regional and international regulations and standards. Expansion in the level of economic and social activities that take place on the oceans and along coastal areas which generate waste also contribute to the problem. Where such waste finds its way into the marine environment, the  effect of winds and currents mean that the impact can be noticed far from where the waste entered the water and such waste will possibly remain in the seas for centuries.

Marine litter covers any solid material which has been deliberately discarded, or unintentionally lost on beaches and on shores or at sea, including materials transported into the marine environment from land by rivers, draining or sewage systems or winds. It includes any persistent, manufactured or processed solid material. (Source: OSPAR)

It constitutes a vast and growing threat to the marine and coastal environment with negative impacts on marine fauna and potentially human health.  There is a constant build-up of marine litter because  much of it is made from materials that are slow to degrade naturally or  do not degrade at all. The need for proper and efficient waste management is recognised internationally as an issue that must be addressed worldwide. It is well recognised that waste control measures on land works as marine litter controls also.  As well as being central to sustainability generally, the   Circular Economy principles of “reduce, reuse, recycle” are key to stemming the flow of marine litter into our oceans.

Acknowledging the extent of the global marine litter problem, Ireland’s attention to marine litter focuses on obligations to implement measures to address the problem in the broader context of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) and under the OSPAR (Oslo-Paris)  Convention to protect the North Eastern Atlantic from pollution and the harmful effects of human activities.

Plastic litter:
Plastic is a particular problem for the marine environment.  Due to its buoyancy, it can easily be washed down rivers, blown offshore and dispersed by currents. It can also be dumped or lost directly from ships and fishing boats.  As it does not biodegrade it persists in the environment in the long-term and can breakdown into secondary micro-plastic particles through erosion.

Plastics debris is one of the biggest environmental problems to be faced in the 21st century. Plastic waste can be found in all aspects of our environment, including lakes, rivers, beaches and throughout our oceans. They are transported to coasts by wind, rivers, drainage systems or human activity. Offshore sources include illegal dumping of plastic waste from ships or the accidental release of plastic resin pellets and other cargo when shipping containers are lost at sea. As a result, floating plastic fragments in the world’s oceans have been reported since the early 1970s, with the amount of debris recording an enormous increase since.

Due to the fact that plastic marine litter is a trans-boundary issue, no one country can solve the problem unilaterally. In co-operation with the EU and other North Eastern Atlantic States, the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government (DHPCLG) is actively involved on the international stage in developing measures to address this issue, based on the precautionary principle

Many companies are undertaking a voluntary ban on certain products containing plastic microbeads.  However, it is considered that a legislative ban is appropriate in order establish a level playing pitch in the market.

Next Steps:
On the conclusion of the current public consultation process DHPCLG will assess the submissions received and this will inform the subsequent legislative development process. Any proposed prohibition of products may have implications for the principle of free movement of goods within the European Union. Accordingly, any such measure will require EU Commission approval as it would have to be compatible with EU rules on the single market. The Department will prepare a robust case for a derogation under Directive 2015/1535 and will forward the required notification to the EU Commission and World Trade Organisation as soon as possible. Supporting research on the topic is at an early stage of development but is advanced enough to suggest that it prudent to intervene at this stage, based on the precautionary principle, to protect the marine environment ’.

Along with the UK, France, Italy and more recently the Nordic countries, Ireland wishes to lead by example in Europe by instituting a national ban on microbeads in certain products.  The US and Canada have already instituted bans of this nature.

Other Marine Litter initiatives supported by the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government include:

  • Funding and active support of An Taisce’s world leading Clean Coast, #twominutebeachclean, Blue and Green Flags, Green Schools Flagg and other awareness raising and citizen activation programmes.
  • A representative longitudinal marine litter survey, based on OSPAR methodology, which identifies trends and issues over time
  • A Seabed litter Survey to assess the scale and scope of sea bed litter
  • A Fulmar research project  to assess the level of plastic in biota using fulmars as an  indicative species
  • Development of new low carbon plastic recycling, converting plastic waste found in the marine environment into an in-demand raw material for both  high and  low tech solutions
  • EU research on sources and pathways of marine litter
  • Fishing for litter in association with BIM and Port and Local Authorities, to encourage green ports and reducing boat and ship sourced pollution and litter
  • Sediment sampling from around Ireland’s coast to ascertain micro plastic content
  • Support for marine litter clean-up initiatives and measures to educate and positively change societal attitudes and behaviours will be enhanced.
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