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Time for Ireland to ban microbeads and microplastics

19 April 2018

Speech by Sean Sherlock TD
Spokesperson on Justice, Children and Youth Affairs

Statements on Plastic and Packaging Pollution

Dáil Éireann, April 19th 2018

I welcome the opportunity to speak to this issue.  As we speak, I have a Bill before the House on the prohibition of microbeads. It is before the committee.  On 28 March, we had a positive engagement with experts from NUI Galway, Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology and the Department's officials regarding the Bill's progression.

I noted the words of the Minister of State, Deputy English, about the Government's intention to publish legislation on banning microplastics or microbeads, but we have yet to see the colour of the Government's money in that regard.  There is evidence that it has been talking about this matter since 2016, but we have seen no legislation as yet.

I am happy to withdraw my legislation.  I do not view it as partisan in any way.  It follows on from a Bill that was introduced by Senator Grace O'Sullivan and can be amended.  I openly acknowledge that it has flaws.  Its intention is to ban microplastics and the scourge of microbeads, which find their way into river courses and out into the sea.  There is an evidence basis for those plastics being ingested by fish and eventually working their way back into the human food chain.

I am hopeful that the Government will publish its legislation.  A great deal of water has gone under the bridge since that commitment was first made in 2016, though, and we are now in 2018.  According to the Minister of State, the Government will have legislated for this matter by the end of the year.  I take his bona fides in good faith, but the Government has said all of this before.  It would be easy for Deputies to be sceptical about whether the Government will produce that legislation, but we will hold it to account.

 When they appeared before us on 28 March, the officials of the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, stated:

In relation to the Prohibition of Micro Plastics Bill 2016, our primary concern is that the legislation which will be required is technically more complex and challenging than is drafted in [my] legislation.  As an example, as well as ensuring we have robust and future-proofed definitions of microbeads and plastic, we have to work out how the prohibition can be enforced, who will enforce it and what staffing and financial resources will be required to do so.

I take these comments in good faith, given that there are challenges, but they are not insurmountable.  Rather, they are minor and I am surprised that they have not been contended with to date.

The officials stated further:

We are very concerned about the confusion between microbeads and microplastics in this proposed legislation as microbeads are only a small subset of microplastics.  As has been highlighted in previous Oireachtas debates, a national prohibition of products containing microbeads will have implications for the principle of free movement under the provisions of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

This is another red herring, a smokescreen that is being used to delay matters.  There is precedent in the House.  When a former Minister, Deputy Micheál Martin, introduced the smoking ban, a period of time passed before effect was given to the legislation and the same claim, that it would be contrary to free market rules, was used.  It did not stop the ban coming into effect, though.  The same can be done in this instance.  There is precedent because other European Union member states have already instigated such a ban.  The time is now.  If the Government is serious, let it produce its legislation.  Nearly a month has passed since the committee's interaction on my Bill and people want to see microplastics and microbeads banned.  In terms of capturing the zeitgeist, people want an environment that is healthy, protects future generations against aquatic life ingesting these dangerous microplastics and ensures that our seas are clean, which goes to the heart of the matter.

The reputable academics, Dr. Audrey Morley, Dr. Kevin Lynch and Dr. Anne Marie Mahon, who appeared before the committee on 28 March gave extraordinary evidence.  They told us about certain beaches in the west that they surveyed, and stated:

When we were there, the level of pollution on the beach was very obvious.  As we were walking we said the sand looked interesting.  When we bent down and picked up some of it, we noted it was not actually sand but 100% microplastics.  Therefore, the sand on the beach is composed entirely of microplastics.  The students were very interested in moving into this area.  We were happy to supervise their projects.

The rest of the presentation that day was an exposition of that work.

Two issues arise.  First, sand being replaced by microplastics is a worrying trend.  Second, students have a significant hunger to research this matter because they want the problem eliminated.  That is a positive sign.  As policymakers, we need to move into this space more rapidly than we have done heretofore and legislate for the banning of microbeads.  We should not be throwing up smokescreens about whether doing so would be contrary to EU rules.  Other EU member states are moving rapidly in this space.  Ireland is an island and a maritime nation.  As such, this is an existential issue for us.  I do not see why we cannot have a greater degree of urgency in this regard.

I am hopeful that the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, will publish his legislation, but the Government should remember that it does not have a majority in the House and my Bill is still surviving before the committee.  I will keep my Bill on the table and will only withdraw it at such time as I am sure of the Government's commitment to legislate for what is a very important issue, given that it speaks to future generations of Irish people.