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Minister Coveney addresses the Green Party’s Private Members Bill on Microbeads

Published on Wednesday, 23 Nov 2016
Minister Simon Coveney

I wish to reassure the House that that both I, as the Minister responsible for marine environmental protection, and the Government generally, recognise that microbeads used in cosmetics, body care products, and also products such as detergents and scouring agents are potentially harmful to our riverine and marine environments.  Indeed, Ireland holds a formal position that we wish to see microbeads banned at throughout the EU.

Over recent years, scientists, experts and policy makers have become increasingly concerned about the levels of waste, or marine litter, winding up in our seas and oceans.

As Senators are aware, it can be found in every aspect of the marine environment and ranges in size from large objects such as fishing nets or shipping containers to micro- and nano-litter particles.  However, the extent of the marine litter problem and the harm it causes to the environment are not fully understood at this time and are subject to ongoing research.  Nonetheless, it is clear that this is an issue that we need to address, at the very least, under the precautionary principle.  Marine litter also causes socio-economic harm, such as affecting tourism and consumer confidence in seafood.

Plastic is a particular problem for the marine environment.  It does not biodegrade and persists in the environment for a very long time.  It can breakdown into secondary micro-plastic particles through erosion and there is evidence that both large plastic items and microplastics are being ingested by marine fauna with undetermined consequences both for them and for creatures higher up the food chain who eat them in turn – including ourselves.

Microplastics are also entering the marine environment in other forms such as micro-fibres from artificial fabrics worn off clothes by washing, for example.  However, a certain amount of marine microplastic litter is caused by plastic microbeads which are used in cosmetics; body care and cleansing products; and detergents and surface cleaning agents entering the marine environment via wastewater discharges into rivers and estuaries.  Such microbeads cannot be easily removed by treatment of wastewater.

Microbeads might only represent a small fraction of the microplastic litter entering the marine environment, but they are a particularly pernicious product as they are “ready-made” microplastics and cannot be removed once they reach it.  Microbeads could not be regarded as a major human necessity; they are often present merely for decorative purposes. Also, where microbeads are used as exfoliating or scouring agents  a wide array of established safe and biodegradable organic particles or natural mineral alternatives are readily available.

The relevant industries are fully aware that the tide of international opinion is turning against the use of microbeads on account of their potential to cause harm to marine ecosystems.  They are already banned in Canada.  The  proposed US and UK bans are both due to commence in 2017.  A number of EU States, of which Ireland is one, have formally stated that they seek such microbeads banned across the EU.  Thus, industry is already turning to other alternatives.

The fact that marine litter is a trans-boundary issue means that no one country can solve the problem unilaterally. While a domestic ban may send a positive message, clearly banning the use of microbeads by a population of over 500 million would be much more effective than banning them in a population of less than 5 million in isolation.

However, I recognise that there is a value in sending a positive message with a domestic ban.  But if we are going to do this, we have to do it properly.  I have taken some initial legal advice on this issue.  Our primary concern in the first instance is that a national ban could put Ireland in breach of articles 34 and 35 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the EU relating to the principle of the free movement of goods.

Furthermore, under Directive (EU) 2015/1535 laying down a procedure for the provision of information in the field of technical regulations and of rules on Information Society services (codification), there is a requirement for Ireland to formally notify the Commission that we intend to introduce such legislation.  Introducing such a Bill in the Oireachtas prior to such required notification would put us in breach of this Directive and open to immediate, and probably successful challenge.  Thus, it is not possible for us to introduce such a Bill at this stage.

Even if it were possible, there are significant flaws with the Private Members Bill as presented.

For a start, it is more limited in ambition than our current policy position.  It does not cover detergents and scouring agents which also can contain plastic microbeads.  But the problems with the Bill are not confined to that one issue, there are a myriad of issues here.

For example, it doesn’t appear to provide any investigative or enforcement powers, the penalties as laid out are disproportionate and not in keeping with recent legislation.  The specification of a fine of “up to €10,000 per item” could mean that a shopkeeper with a carton of 100 bottles of eye make-up containing plastic glitter for sale could be liable to a fine of up to a €1 million.

The Bill does not provide the Minister with sufficient principles and policies to make regulations and the monitoring programme it proposes is far too broad in scale to be either useful or scientifically justified. It would be unworkable, massively costly and ineffective.

Nonetheless, I see advantages in Ireland leading by example in relation to microbeads.  With this in mind the Government will develop proposals to ban microbeads national in the context of a wider marine environmental Bill to be published in next year which would also provide the legislative basis for a network of Marine Protected Areas as required by the Marine Strategy Framework Directive and make necessary amendments to the Dumping at Sea Acts.

We will consult the relevant stakeholders in advance of this and draw up our justification for derogation under single market rules and notify the Commission as required.

In conjunction with this, we will continue to lobby for an EU wide micro-bead ban at the earliest opportunity. As I stated earlier, like climate change, marine litter is a transboundary problem.  We will only be able to start solving this problem by concerted international action underpinned by research and supported by awareness raising activities.  In advance of that though, I intend to write to the Commission in the coming days to notify it of my intention to proceed with a ban on microbeads, going even further than what is proposed by Senator O’Sullivan.

In conclusion, the Government recognises that there is a need to prevent microbeads from entering the environment through wastewater.  We welcome the principle and acknowledge Senator O’Sullivan’s sincere effort in progressing this important issue.

I recognise that this can only be realistically achieved by a ban on their use in cosmetics and other body-care and boy-wash products.  However, I also wish to see them removed from detergents and scouring agents, which the Bill as presented does not allow.

While Ireland wants an EU wide ban, I see the value in leading by example.  However, this has to be done within the context of EU rules on free movement of goods. Also, it requires strong legislation with proper investigative and enforcement provisions provided for the appropriate State Agency.

The proposed Private Members Bill meets none of these requirements and has many other problems.  Accordingly, I cannot support it.

However, I am willing to commit to drawing up the necessary justification to ban this on a national level, to submit this to the EU and notify them of our formal intent to undertake such a ban in 2017.  I look forward to working with the Senate and Dáil to ensure that such legislation is strong and fit for purpose.