Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 28 March 2018
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government
Prohibition of Micro-Plastics Bill 2016: Discussion (Resumed)
At the request of the broadcasting and recording services, members and visitors in the Public Gallery are requested to ensure that for the duration of the meeting their mobile telephones are turned off completely or switched to airplane, safe or flight mode, depending on their device. It is not sufficient to put their phones on silent mode as this will maintain the level of interference with the broadcasting system.
No. 5 is resumed detailed scrutiny of the Prohibition of Micro-Plastics Bill 2016. I remind members we will have two sessions today. In our first session we will resume scrutiny of the Prohibition of Micro-Plastics Bill 2016. I welcome to our meeting Mr. Roger Harrington and Mr. Conall O'Connor from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government , Dr. Anne Marie Mahon and Dr. Róisín Nash from Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, and Dr. Kevin Lynch from the National University of Ireland Galway.
Before we begin I wish to draw attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give to the committee. If, however, they are directed to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. Witnesses will have four minutes to make their opening statements. I invite Mr. Harrington to make his opening statement.
Mr. Roger Harrington:
I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for inviting the Department here today to contribute to these discussions. As the committee will be aware, marine litter is a persistent problem affecting all regions of the world which needs to be urgently addressed. Plastic, in all its forms, is a particular problem. Due to its buoyancy, it can easily be carried by currents or blown by winds from land or seaborne sources. It persists in the environment for an extremely long time. It breaks down into secondary microplastic particles and there is now a growing body of strong evidence that plastics and microplastics are impacting on marine fauna. As well as being created by the breakdown of larger items, microplastics are also entering the marine environment directly in a wide variety of forms, such as fibres, lost raw material pellets or through tyre wear. Some marine microplastic litter is also caused by microbeads used in cosmetics, cleansing products and detergents. A legal prohibition on microbeads has been the subject of two recent Private Members' Bills in the Oireachtas and in these debates the Department committed to drawing up legislation on this issue. I know that members of this committee are passionate about the marine environment and all issues connected with it as evidenced by the contributions made to those recent Oireachtas debates.
As with many areas of the public service, the Department has faced very considerable challenges across all of its areas of operation in meeting its critical business objectives and priorities with limited levels of human resources. Addressing the prohibition of microbeads through primary legislation is a policy priority for this Department, but staff resource issues coupled with a wide variety of other urgent marine environmental policy demands has meant that progress has been slower than anticipated. As well as overseeing the implementation of the marine strategy framework directive monitoring programme and programme of measures and the general implementation of the OSPAR Convention, Ireland has a lead role in a number of actions under the OSPAR Convention regional action plan to address marine litter. These include developing regulatory and economic recommendations for measures to reduce the impact of single use items on the marine environment; identifying marine litter hotspots in the north-east Atlantic; examining wastewater and storm water as pathways for marine litter, including microlitter; and developing measures to reduce the impact of expandable polystyrene in marine and coastal environments.
The Department is the lead Irish partner on the OCEANWISE INTERREG programme to reduce the impact of expandable polystyrene as marine litter. We commission, support and are involved in the oversight of an array of monitoring and research programmes related to marine litter. We are also working to develop an integrated national approach to the marine litter problem with other Departments and State agencies and are working to develop a number of measures with key stakeholders. The Department is supporting a wide range of awareness raising and citizen activation measures such as An Taisce's world leading clean coast range of programmes and the green schools global citizenship marine environment programme and we are working to incorporate marine litter awareness into mainstream anti-litter programmes. However, it must be remembered that marine litter represents just one aspect of our marine environmental work. For example, we need to make progress on developing environmental spatial protection measures such as marine protected areas and also need to commence preparatory work for cycle two of the implementation of the marine strategy framework directive, MSFD, such as revising our initial assessment of the environmental status of the maritime area including targets and indicators. However, I am pleased to inform the committee that additional staff resources have now been made available and will be employed shortly on a full-time basis on marine environmental legislation with the legislation on microbeads prohibition being the priority item. Proposals to prohibit the sale and manufacture of certain products containing plastic microbeads are included in our 2018 legislative programme and a memorandum to Government will issue within a month seeking permission to draw up heads of a Bill. It is expected that the heads will be published by the summer. The Bill will be put to the Oireachtas at the earliest opportunity thereafter. The Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has indicated that he wants to see the Bill become law this year. However, this may require choices as to which legislation is prioritised.
I should point out that the Department has done some work on this issue. In February 2017, the Department launched an online public consultation process on the proposed legislative ban. We received more than 3,000 responses. The volume and diversity of responses demonstrates the concern of civil society and stakeholders and these submissions are now informing our policy and legislative development. 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 this 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.
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. EU Commission approval will be required to obtain derogation from Single Market rules. We are working on the development of a robust justification for our proposed national ban, which will have to be evidence based in tandem with the development of the legislation.
In January, the EU plastics strategy was announced and it proposes an EU wide ban on microbeads and other problematic plastic products under REACH regulations. REACH is an EU regulation, adopted to improve the protection of human health and the environment from the risks that can be posed by chemicals. REACH applies to all chemical substances and places responsibility on industry to manage the risks from chemicals, to provide information on the properties of their products and to register this information in a central database. However, this ban may not come into effect for several years. We will continue to work with the Commission on this issue but will do this in tandem with progressing our own national legislation. However, to keep this in context, addressing microbeads is only one small aspect of the overall marine litter problem. Also, while it is a priority, marine litter is only one of many categories we must address under the marine strategy framework directive and the OSPAR Convention. These include pollution and contaminants, biodiversity and habitat loss and a wide range of other potential threats to the sustainability of our seas. In conclusion, the Department is fully committed to addressing the issue and we look forward to the advancement of microbeads legislation within the timeframe that I have outlined.
Dr. Anne Marie Mahon:
Today, I am just going to talk about microbeads in the context of plastic litter. It is a big problem. The G7 summit in 2015 highlighted that this is a global challenge directly affecting marine ecosystems and potentially human health. We are all familiar with the sight of littered beaches. Let us look at microplastics in the context of marine litter. They are small fragments of less than 5 mm and greater than 1 µm and by weight, in some of the most polluted areas of the oceans 25% of the total mass of plastics are microplastics.
It sounds like it is a lesser problem. However, the number of particles microplastics produce by comparison with macroplastics is much greater, as can be seen from the circulated graph. This is significant because of the size of the microplastics. They absorb, release and interact with pollutants that already exist in the environment much more than larger plastic particles because of the large surface-volume ratio. Also, they release other chemicals that are inherent to microplastics, be they the monomers that make up the polymer or the additives themselves.
I have circulated among members a graph showing the pathway of microplastics, or plastic litter, in time. As time progresses, the litter breaks down into smaller particles. As it does so, there is an increase in the ability of these particles to absorb and interact with organic contaminants. There is also an increase in the bioavailability of microplastics. I refer to how many compartments of the environment they can penetrate and how many organisms they can penetrate. Going down into the nanometre scale - there is, of course, a continuum - it is a matter of how many compartments of each organism can be penetrated. Can it penetrate the circulatory system? Can it penetrate a cell? These are very different in terms of impact.
Let me refer to the types of microplastics. Litter, such as the litter at beaches, breaks down into fragments. There are plastics generated by machining by industry. It could be a medical devices industry, a recycling industry or another. Such an industry produces a lot of microplastic litter. Synthetic fibres in our clothing are microplastics and they produce over 2,000 per wash. This is a big input. Astroturf pitches and roads are giving off fragments. We are doing some work on this at present to determine the output. The construction industry demands a lot of plastics. There are many different plastics for insulation and piping. This is a more diffuse source but, most likely, a large contributor.
The more primary types of microplastics are the microbeads. Some estimates suggest that 2% to 3% of the total microplastic loading would be due to microplastic beads. It is difficult to say. Also to be considered are the nurdles that are used for microplastics to convert into other plastic products.
What have we been finding in the environment? We have not been finding a lot of microbeads. We are mostly finding fibres. We are finding fragments. The graph on this subject indicates, by way of grey dots, that in our first study we found 96% fibres and 0.2% microbeads. Another large study, outlined in the slide with the red triangle, shows a figure for microbeads or spheres of 4%. Another study, which examined the stomachs of fish, found no microbeads at all. However, there are some freshwater studies that show more microbeads. I refer to the Rhine and the Manchester basin. It might be that microbeads are more concentrated in freshwater environments near high-urbanisation zones.
Most of the microbeads are plastics are channelled through the wastewater treatment system. We find that most microplastics end up in the sludge, but some of the lighter ones go out into the receiving waters. We know of some impacts on biota, especially in laboratory-based trials.
A range of different polymers make up microbeads. Some are more toxic and hazardous than others. There is a large size range. Included are bulking agents and glitters, which do not sound so necessary in many cases. I have an example of some microbeads from a toothpaste for children aged up to two. I will pass it around to members so they may all see what it is. There are up to 95,000 particles in one tube of the toothpaste. Microbeads are in personal care products and detergents. These contribute 2,000 to 3000 tonnes of microplastics per year. Paints, coatings and abrasives contribute 40,000 to 50,000 tonnes per year. This shows the volume produced by personal care products by comparison with more industrial sources. There are alternatives. Some companies are already using alternatives to microbeads to show they are not always completely necessary.
Dr. Kevin Lynch:
I thank the committee for the invitation. I am here today representing both myself and Dr. Audrey Morley. Unlike Ms Mahon, we are not experts on microbeads. I am a coastal geomorphologist and Ms Morley is a climate scientist. Our interest in this is that we have had a number of MSc projects on this topic over recent years. This is based on interest among our students and a more general interest in microplastics and in understanding that pollution is a problem. When we began to examine this problem, we obviously read the literature to determine whether there was anything of note in an Irish context. Our first study was in 2015. Prior to 2014, there was really no published work on the Irish coastal waters or coast in this area. From that point on, Dr. Amy Lusher, Dr. Mahon and the team in GMIT have published quite a bit of work on microplastics in the water column and in the stomachs of fish and seabirds. There was nothing in some of the fauna that could potentially eat these. I refer also to the shellfish.
It was very obvious that this was a problem internationally. There is a lot of evidence that it is a problem internationally so we wanted to see whether it was a problem in Ireland. Around 2015, a UN Commissioner responsible for food was visiting. We brought her to a beach in Renvyle in County Galway to carry out an ecological survey. 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 my presentation is really an exposition of their work.
Mr. Jake Martin and Dr. Audrey Morley worked on a project in which they examined marine sediment. On one of the cruises on the Celtic Voyager, they collected box cores, which are short cores of the sediments on the seabed, to investigate whether they could find any microplastics there. Members will see from the map on the slide the location from where the samples were taken.
Dr. Amy Lusher from GMIT developed a set of protocols based on international best practice on how to identify microplastics.
These are just a few examples of what Mr. Jake Martin found. Essentially one has to look under a microscope and identify every individual microplastic in a particular sample.
The images on the slide on display are a representation of the box cores he collected. The little blue ones at the top are the water column, and then one can see the sediments. What the team found was that there were microplastics throughout the sediments down to a certain depth, which correlated quite closely to the initial production of microplastics in the 1950s and onwards. As there is a certain amount of mixing in the surface layers due to trawling and ocean processes, the exact dates cannot be identified. From this it can be seen that microplastics are in the sediment and in the water column. The quantities in this area are in single figures for the most part; such as eight, nine, ten or 11 or that sort of quantity.
The type of microplastics was also looked at. The most common types are fibres and fragments. These are essentially secondary plastics from the breakdown but they might also be primary microplastics, such as for example microbeads. That is just a broad idea of what Martin et al. found.
As part of a separate project this year, Christine Loughlin and Audrey Morley went out and surveyed the same areas to check for the robustness of this particular methodology and found statistically similar results. That was really a check on the earlier work. The earlier work was also published in Naturemagazine, which is one of the highest impact magazines in the area. It has been peer reviewed.
As the sediments and the water column both have microplastics one might expect that fauna in these areas would ingest them, either accidentally by mistaking them for food or, if filter feeders, they might suck water out of the water column and ingest whatever happens to be in that water. They cannot differentiate between plastic and non-plastic. The next couple of projects were designed to directly sample some of the fauna. This slide shows a Dublin Bay prawn. Sonny and Morley had a look at these creatures, and took samples from the fishermen who caught them. I should point out that Dublin Bay prawns are also present in Galway, off the Aran Islands, and these samples came from areas that were similar to those from where Mr. Jake Martin took his sediment samples. Microplastics were found to be present and a percentage of each type of microplastic was identified in each individual sample. Fibres again were by far the most prevalent. For some reason there was a variation through time, and so it was not quite a straightforward process. The earlier study I mentioned was also carried out off the coast of Iceland as part of this study and considered many more variables, including the ocean current, the sedimentology of the substrate, the presence of vegetation etc. to see which variable impacted the deposition of the microplastics from the water column. There are many variables involved.
The message to take away is that they are present in the nephrops. In terms of the depuration process, the microplastics are found in the intestinal tract, which is normally not eaten, so for this particular species that perhaps is not a serious problem. However, there may be problems caused by toxins going into the muscle fibres of the nephrops themselves.
The next study considers blue mussels, which are eaten whole in that anything within the shell is eaten. This study was carried out in inner Galway Bay. The sample sites are shown on the slide. It was carried out close to Mutton Island, which is a wastewater facility and treatment outlet, as well as further along the coast in a special area of conservation, SAC, in Rusheen Bay. In 20 samples - which does not show up particularly well in these slides, which are screen grabs from the identification process - the plastic can clearly be seen when examined under the microscope. Going by the protocols, the number of plastics can be identified. To validate this information would require more work in infrared spectrophotometry, which costs a lot of money and so is not available to our students. It was not carried out in this case but is something that would need to be done at a later stage. Many microplastics were found in the 20 samples. There were over 5,000 individual microplastics identified by Ms Joanne Casserly in the 20 samples from this area. That could be a very serious issue, and perhaps the Food Safety Authority should look further into that. It could be a problem, and we would be concerned about that. I should have mentioned that the samples were also composed from off the shelf mussels. They were available for sale; Ms Joanne Casserly went to a shop and bought them. The wild stocks actually had more microplastics per gram because they are smaller individuals than the farmed stocks.
In summary, the evidence I have presented here suggests this could be a serious problem in our marine environment and should be looked at. It is likely to pose a risk to human health and habitat quality, based on international research and evidence at an international level. The evidence strongly suggests that we should be trying to reduce microplastics entering the environment. We support the Bill, notwithstanding some of the issues Mr. Harrington pointed out earlier regarding the terminology used to describe beads and microplastics.
I thank the members. I thank the officials and the academics for their attendance today because I believe that having this opportunity to interact with them is a crucial part of the legislative process. I view it as a free tutorial, for which I am very grateful. I also thank the Chair and the members of the committee for facilitating the discussion this morning.
The key point that emerges from the evidence before us is that there is no doubt but that there is clear evidence of the presence of microfibres and microbeads in sea life and on land, having been washed ashore. The witnesses have presented clear evidence of that today. The Dublin Bay prawn presented is a very distinct piece of evidence to that effect. I believe this makes the legislation all the more worthwhile in that sense.
I appreciate the point being made about the legislation I have introduced. It deals specifically with microbeads that, according to the presentation, represent a small fraction in sea life and flora and fauna. However, my Bill is a first or a second cut. This is an iterative process and I am not tied to the fact that it should deal only with microbeads. I am quite happy for it to be amended in any way to reflect the realities of the science presented before us. If that means dealing with microfibres or any other particles present that fall into the general microplastic group, then I have no qualms about that whatsoever. The key thing is that we are at a juncture where we are acknowledging there is a need to legislate on this issue. It needs to be done post-haste.
My first question is to the officials, namely, Mr. Harrington and Mr. O'Connor. They mentioned that the heads of a Bill will come before us or that a Bill is being worked on. Can they be more specific on when that Government Bill will come before the House?
Mr. Roger Harrington:
Yes, I can give the Deputy a sense of that. To recap on the remarks I made, my unit recently has been given two additional posts. They are being appointed to marine environmental legislation with a focus on prioritising work on microbeads legislation. The first of those resources will be arriving next week and it is aimed to have the second one within another five to six weeks. They will be specifically employed on this particular legislation. I aim to go to Cabinet within a month to seek approval to commence this work. I hope that by the summer, we will have drawn up the heads of a Bill which will outline further our approach and our thinking in respect of this legislation.
I appreciate that and that is clear evidence of action by the Government in this regard. While this not a remark directed at the officials per sebut is more a political statement, I must state that this legislation has been in gestation since 2016. I had hoped we would be further along the line at this stage because I have always expressed my willingness to withdraw my Bill were more robust legislation to come along. This is a non-partisan and a non-political issue. I want to take a bipartisan approach to this matter. I still feel the need to ensure my legislation is kept on the books until such time as I see evidence from the Government as to the seriousness of its intentions. That is notwithstanding the additional resources which have been allocated to this.
I refer back to the originator of the legislation, who is Senator Grace O'Sullivan. We are only taking up the cudgel on this. However, we do need to see this Government legislation sooner rather than later. I welcome the fact that Mr. Harrington is seeking permission within a month to draw up heads of a Bill. I am anxious that the clock might tick down on the lifetime of the Government or that its mandate may expire. It is a Private Members' Bill. I am conscious that if Mr. Harrington is talking about the summer months for this, it then will not be long until we are into the autumn and then into 2019. We do not know what is going to happen then. As I understand it, my Private Members' Bill falls on the ending of that mandate.
Mr. Roger Harrington:
If I can comment on the Deputy's remarks, yes this has been ongoing. The Deputy is absolutely right. Resources have been sought internally within the Department on a number of occasions to progress this in a more timely fashion. I need, however, to give the committee today a rounded picture of the work we undertake. It is also included in the briefing note that we supplied to the committee. I refer to other important work ongoing in the marine environment space. We work closely on other research projects with organisations such as An Taisce. That is important work in respect of raising awareness. I would like to reflect on that. While this legislation is not where we all would have hoped it would be, it is not that no work is being done in this particular area. On the timescale issue, the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has said he would like to see this legislation become law this year.
I appreciate those comments. I recognise Mr. Harrington is speaking for the Minister here. However, we will have an opportunity to talk to the Minister directly about this as well and kick the tyres on his commitments.
I will return briefly to the science again, just for a moment. The scientific rigour that has been applied here shows us that the research in an Irish context is nascent in the grand narrative of things. It is from 2014 I think. I acknowledge the witnesses probably have all been working in this area prior to this. Can I get a sense from the witnesses as to where the Legislature needs to go on this issue? That is pulling them from the realm of pure academic research into the realm of politics. I directing this at Dr. Nash. If she was designing legislation or a response to the scourge of microplastics and microbeads, this plastic pollution that is killing our flora and fauna and being ingested by human beings, where would she go, where would she start or what would she do? It is a tough one but I just want to get the perspectives of the witnesses on it because I think it is vital.
Dr. Róisín Nash:
My perspective is that we have seen much of the Irish research that is going on. We are also involved in EU projects like BASEMAN. We are only now developing methodologies to standardise sampling microplastics in order that the studies can be compared. I am looking at it from a larger perspective. If we go with the legislation as is, we are missing the point in one sense. I will use an analogy. Everyone here has been at a GAA match. The legislation is focusing on the umpire on the sideline as opposed to what is actually happening in the game. It is such a small part. It is important and I do not disregard it. We could go home and everybody will recognise a microbead and everybody knows that it is bad. However, by focusing our legislation on that, we are missing a huge element of the issue. We need to have more evidence. A lot of research is coming on board and within the next 12 months, we definitely will have a huge amount more that we can put towards the legislation. We do not know, with confidence, where to identify all the sources, their quantities, the locations of the hotspots or how we can mitigate against it. If we put in this legislation, we will miss a lot of mitigation that essentially could stop it down the line. We just recently have-----
Forgive me, does that mean more time is needed to design the legislation? If the legislation is to be designed in a robust way, does it need a stronger scientific and research basis? Is Dr. Nash stating that industry needs to be involved because the generators of these plastics need to be involved? Is she talking about a more holistic approach?
Dr. Róisín Nash:
I think so. Looking at the evidence that has been supplied here on the fragments and the potential sources, if we focus only on microbeads, we will be missing a whole element that will feed into it. I know a lot of effort goes into these Bills and getting them forward and it is definitely going in the right direction. However, I think we need it to be a little bit more all encompassing and more robust going forward.
-----so I understand where the witness is coming from. I was very happy with the umpire, the referee and the outcome. Normally, we ask all our questions, then go back to the witness and then go back to the Deputy. I have been flexible because it is Deputy Sherlock's Bill and he is more informed on a lot of the questions and how to ask them. Is Dr. Nash saying that the Bill, as it stands, is too narrow?
However, Deputy Sherlock has said that he awaits the Government heads of Bill and is happy to encompass his within that. Is Dr. Nash saying that it is too narrow as it stands and we need to include more within that?
To be helpful, I recognise that Dr. Nash is saying that it is too narrow and that microbeads, based on the evidence put forward from Nephrops norvegicus, were only something like 2% of the content and 75% was microfibres. That makes the legislative proposal before us here quite narrow.
We could legislate for microbeads, but the point is we need legislation with much broader scope because, based on the evidence before us, microbeads only represent a portion of the plastics used. In that sense, the legislation is quite narrow.
Dr. Róisín Nash:
Absolutely. We might also consider marine debris which is made up of larger objects that end up as microplastics. There is a huge amount of research that has not yet been published. Studies of seabed integrity are under way. They are looking at the invertebrate animals that live in the seabed to see if they are affected. One such study is ongoing in trawls. We have found microplastics in several spider crabs, or normal harbour crabs. A lot of information to be released in the next eight months will make the case a lot more robust.
I thank the delegates for their presentations. What concerns me listening to Dr. Mahon is not only the issue of microbeads and microplastics but also the releasing of contaminants. We are not just talking about a marine littoral problem. We are also talking about pollution, contaminants, the impact on biodiversity, habitats lost and the effect on the sustainability of the seas. Without a doubt, this is a serious problem. In 2016 I introduced legislation to deal with microbeads and microplastics and start building an awareness of this issue. Two years on there is no legislation before us other than Deputy Sean Sherlock's Bill. The delegates have given us the evidence from their research in Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT. Evidence is emerging around the world and the GMIT research has been really significant. However, we must consider the entire coastline. This is only a sample. I wonder what is happening in the Irish Sea, my area around Tramore and Waterford and along the northern coastline. We need more evidence. There must be greater support for the institutes in order to build the evidence required and we need this to be written into the legislation. That is what my Bill would have provided for. It would have provided for monitoring in order that the relevant information would be available to us on an all-island basis.
In addition, I note that this is a transboundary problem. What is the Department doing on an international level? Are officials working through MARPOL, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, and the various international associations in pursuing this issue from an Irish perspective?
For me, legislation is not coming quickly enough. I understand the Department needs resources, including human resources, to develop legislation. However, we have a problem with macro and microplastic pollution; contaminants such as polymers; and the impact of toxins in the food chain. It is a serious issue and we must have legislation to deal with it. When I introduced my Bill, the then Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney, said he would have to talk to the European Commission because of Single Market rules. We now know that that did happen and that the Minister sought a derogation which we have not seen either. From my perspective, the evidence is stacking up that we have a serious problem which potentially is impacting on human health. As said, there are so many aspects to it, including pollution, contaminants, habitats lost and the impact on biodiversity and sustainability of the seas. We are, therefore, not moving fast enough and I am asking the Department to move with greater urgency. Two years have passed. We have Deputy Sean Sherlock's Bill, but if the Department has something better I ask that we be allowed to see it and soon. We must take into consideration not only microbeads and microplastics but also the collation of data, which will mean supporting the institutes in order that we work proactively as well as retroactively to deal with what is an ongoing problem.
Mr. Conall O'Connor:
I thank the Senator. To reassure her, one of the reasons we are so stretched is that we are working very hard to deal with the marine litter problem generally. It is the central marine environmental concern, although loss of biodiversity and habitat is also a very serious concern. In many respects, it is the new climate change problem. People are realising we have created an enormous problem with this wonder substance that was developed in the 1950s. It has the tremendous property of being able to last forever and is water resistant, etc. It is used on a disposable basis. These are, however, the very properties that make it problematic in the environment. We now realise the marine and other environments are replete with this problem. The marine strategy framework directive includes specific targets to deal with marine litter. We are required to achieve what is called "good environmental status" using the different criteria included in the directive. We are also working under OSPAR, the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic, and on different actions to deal with this probelm with the OSPAR intercessional group on marine litter. It is a constant iterative process and new evidence is emerging all the time, to which we are responding transnationally and nationally.
The legislation to address microbeads will deal with one aspect of the problem, but a range of other measures will have to be put in place in the coming years. They will have societal implications, affect how we live and deal with things across Ireland, Europe and globally. For example, dealing with microfibres will be problematic because in washing artificial fabrics microfibres are generated. The plastic ropes used in plastic nets break down into fibres. The measures that will ultimately be needed to deal with things such as this will have societal implications. We will have to bring society along with us globally.
We fully accept what the Senator is saying. As I said, one of the reasons we are so stretched is that we are trying to deal with so many measures, but we are happy that we now have the resources to work on this specific legislation.
I am glad that Mr. O'Connor mentioned climate change because one thing we do not talk about when we talk about polymers is their base. We are talking about fossil fuels and complete societal change. My objective is to build momentum.
Mr. Conall O'Connor:
In our briefing document we have outlined some of the measures we are supporting and taking and on which we are leading in a transboundary context. They are only part of a range of measures being looked at. With reference to sediment, we have actually taken samples from sub-tidal and inter-tidal zones around the country. We are about to seek tenders to have these samples analysed. That is just one of the things we have done.
Dr. Kevin Lynch:
It is important that we differentiate between sources. There are terrestrial sources of plastics pollution, one of which is manufacturing, within which there are dispersed sources. It is the manufacturing side of the problem that we are looking at today. If we try to tackle all of the problems in one go, we will never find a solution to tackle all of them. We will have to proceed through introducing pieces of legislation. That is why a piece such as this is good. The need for evidence is clear, but there is also a need to invoke the precautionary principle; in other words, we do not need specific evidence on every part of the coast to say this is a problem.
As we know from international research that it is a problem, we should move, rather than wait for evidence, but in saying that we also need to know if the legislation will be successful. We must monitor it as we go along to see if it is working.
Mr. Harrington has said he has two new staff resources to work on marine and environmental areas. There is, of course, the likelihood that the priorities for the people in question will change in time such that they will be moved from particular areas such as dealing with this legislation and microplastics to foreshore legislation which has been sitting there for a while. Marine spatial planning is coming into force and we are working on putting it together on a national scale. We have also been waiting on marine protected areas for a while. Therefore, I can see the new staff being overwhelmed very quickly. If we can get focused legislation like this through in a timely manner, we could start to work on some of the other problems we face.
I thank the delegates for the presentations and again acknowledge the work of both Deputy Sean Sherlock and Senator Grace O'Sullivan. If the departmental officials take anything from this meeting it is that there is a very strong consensus in the committee that we want to see something being done in a timely fashion. One of the values of engaging in pre-legislative scrutiny is that it allows us have these conversations to ensure the final legislation - be it from the Opposition, the Government or an amalgam of the two - will be the best possible. I welcome all of the comments made.
Mr. Harrington is overstating the potential problems from a European Commission perspective when he says there will be implications for the principle of free movement. In its engagement with the British Government on this issue, for example, the Commission explicitly stated this might not be the case and that there could be circumstances where a ban on certain products for environmental reasons could be consistent with internal market rules and that, therefore, a derogation would not be required. It is important to note that it is not as hard and fast as Mr. Harrington's choice of language suggests. As we know, the French have passed legislation dealing with microbeads and the British Government is progressing its own. There are some reflections at EU level on how EU policy in this area fits into global policies. Notwithstanding that, I am interested in Mr. Harrington expanding a little more on two comments made in the presentation. What are his thoughts on including "robust" and "future-proofed" definitions of microbeads and plastics? Will he expand a little more on the information contained in the briefing note? He spoke about working out how prohibition could be enforced. If there are even initial thoughts on that issue, I am interested in hearing them.
I was quite taken by Dr. Nash's comments on the umpire analogy. The straight question from our perspective is what would she like to see added, taking account of Dr. Lynch's point that we cannot include everything in one piece of legislation. Could certain things be added at this point before returning to others? This is not just about substances to be banned; there is also the concern about mitigation, on which I am interested in hearing further comments.
As a side point, last week we were considering another piece of water-related policy - the revised EU drinking water directive. It is about trying to take a risk-based approach to removing things from sources of drinking water. We have spoken primarily about the marine end of the microbeads issue. Is there any research or consideration from the science or Department end in terms of the implications for drinking water? It is something we might need to consider in the context of the revised EU directive.
Mr. Roger Harrington:
I will respond first to Dr. Lynch fand then Deputy Eoin Ó Broin.
Dr. Lynch has certainly outlined what is a challenging work agenda for us in the Department in dealing with these matters. What we intend to have is separate stand-alone legislation dealing with microbeads. We are not anticipating including this piece of legislation with any other legislation such as legislation to deal with the maritime area or the foreshore (amendment) Bill.
Dr. Lynch mentioned maritime spatial planning. We set up a separate unit within the Department that is advancing work on that matter. We have recently published a roadmap in that regard. Again, it will not have any real impact on our achievements. The resources we are receiving will be prioritised to deal with the microbeads Bill. I do not see any particular change to what I have set out.
Dr. Lynch mentioned marine protected areas which are also of great interest to the committee. It is an area for which we want to provide a legislative basis. Initially, the priority again will be dealing with microbeads.
I thank Deputy Eoin Ó Broin for his helpful remarks. As I mentioned, I am getting a clear sense of the interest of the committee and the Oireachtas in this area. It has been clearly noted. I also thank the Deputy for his helpful comments on the engagement between the United Kingdom and the European Commission. I was reflecting the initial legal advice we had received, but as we go into the matter in some depth, it may move to the scenario described by the Deputy. We have been advised on an interim basis that there is a need for engagement with the Commission which has stated it wants robust justification in that regard. We are all agreed that we are not going back to first principles in providing an evidence base for the Commission. Some of our colleagues have given the results of their research. As I see it, it is about the collation and distillation of the research and analysis that has been undertaken. It is about saying to the Commission that there is a problem and evidence to represent the problem before proposing a legislative solution.
I will ask my colleague to make some brief points on the other questions concerning the definitions of plastics and enforcement.
Mr. Conall O'Connor:
The robust and future-proofed definitions of plastics arise from some of the feedback we have received in our consultation process. We want to ensure whatever definition we will have will encompass any potential plastic microbead in order that we will not miss something. We do not want a manufacturer to be clever and find a synthetic polymer that could be harmful to get around the definition which we want to be all-encompassing, if possible. We also want to take in polymers that may not yet have been developed. That should be straightforward enough. The UK definition is not that bad, but we are looking at the issue with our own national experts.
Before moving to enforcement, I will respond to one of Dr. Lynch's points about monitoring. Under the marine strategy framework directive we must identify the good environmental status of our waters and set targets and indicators. We must then put a monitoring programme in place. That is extremely important. Much of our research and the work of the Environmental Protection Agency will heavily inform what we will choose to monitor. We need to identify the ideal candidate species to monitor and the ideal locations, etc. in order that we get a picture of what is happening with microplastics and marine litter in general.
We would envisage that the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, would have a role in enforcement and that we would create the standard authorised person. There is much legislation that provides a model for this where people can go out and take samples, look at things, analyse, investigate and so on, and then prosecute if necessary. That would be the role but there would obviously be a financial cost attached to that which we need to factor into our considerations.
I have a supplementary question on the European Commission. Five or six EU member states that have banned microplastics to date, including those that have introduced a ban from the start of this year. Has the European Commission given any negative response to those?
Mr. Conall O'Connor:
We got some unofficial feedback on this. This is more what we are picking up from the air than what is formally available. The European Commission recognises that the train has left the station with regard to microbeads. Concerns have been expressed that all of these solo actions by member states on various different things are being potentially corrosive to the Single Market. It is not that they are not justified, just that the Commission would prefer a unified step forward. If somebody has taken this step beforehand and been at the vanguard of getting a derogation from the Commission, it makes the job easier for people following on.
I thank the witnesses for all the expert opinion that we have heard. It has been a very interesting discussion. We will be fully supportive of a ban on microbeads but I hear the point that has been made by experts and academics today, that microbeads represent a small fraction of the problem and the issue is far broader than that. There are two ways in which one can deal with that. One is to broaden the Bill so that it deals not just with microbeads, but microfibres and microplastics more generally, or second, it can be a first step which opens the door and is followed quickly and rapidly with extra legislation which tackles microfabrics and microplastics. I have an open opinion as to which is the best way to go. The basic point is that the broader picture must be addressed with urgency, but comprehensively and in a robust way.
The idea that there is a potential impact on human health is obviously of real concern and I imagine the situation here is cumulative. There is a large quantity of microplastics intersecting with marine life. It is growing. Is there a tipping point? Maybe that is a point that could be addressed. Is it just a case of quantitative changes or does it turn into something more serious at a certain point? I take on board the point that has been raised by Dr. Lynch that there is a very significant presence on our coastlines in Ireland. I welcome the Bill and that the Government is no longer opposing it. I thought the initial reaction from the Minister, Deputy Coveney, was depressing and deferred to business interests, the cosmetic industry and the European Union. It is clear that change on this issue is unstoppable. The debate has started, many people are engaging in it and there is a mood for change. Some European governments have introduced legislation and the US will have a ban within two years. Is that correct? I think the UK is doing something similar and maybe the witnesses could clarify that. It is important that Ireland does not lag behind on this. It is clear that the Minister, Deputy Coveney, did not want Ireland to be a pioneer on it but change is under way now and it is important that Ireland does not lag behind.
For the record and for clarity for the committee, I do not think the Minister, Deputy Coveney, ever indicated that and he said that he was quite happy to work with the author of the Bill and to progress it. That is for clarification.
His initial reaction was that he would engage with the proposer of the Bill and in the process. From the committee's point of view, we have always taken this Bill in good faith and sought to work in the best way possible with it. That is just for clarification. It probably does not matter for today but we want to move forward with the Bill in the best possible manner.
I note that there has been a change in the Government position from an initial stance of leaning strongly towards opposition to one of saying that it will not oppose it. I think that is public opinion and that the debate that has opened up has been a factor in that. That is my view.
As the originator of the Bill, the Deputy is correct in the sense that the initial mood of the Government and the speech that was distributed to us on the night of the Second Stage debate was in opposition to the Bill. There have been some discussions with the Minister, Deputy Coveney, to his credit and he decided subsequently to come on board. I think Deputy Barry is correct in that sense.
No. In essence, I am looking for a bit more information about what is coming down the tracks with regard to the changes in the US and the question as to whether the build-up of microplastics is something which has a potential tipping point beyond which it becomes more serious.
I am again conscious of time. My Bill is very simple and it deals with a bespoke element of the entirety of the challenge - microbeads. I am very happy to change the title of my Bill to call it the prohibition of microbeads Bill 2016 or such. This is where the scientific research has been invaluable to us. It really explains to us just how large the scope is and the methodology that one needs to underpin all of the research, and that work is ongoing. The wording of my Bill is "any cosmetic containing micro-plastics is guilty of an offence". I allow for summary offences. It calls for penalties if one manufactures, sells or imports. I also set out what would be actually banned. These are all what I would call products of conspicuous consumption. They are not necessities. They include a "personal care product including but not limited to a facial scrub, soap, lotion, shower gel, sunscreen, make-up, deodorant or toothpaste". We are not banning those products but we are banning products of that nature that contain microbeads. We have a scientific definition of microbeads. My Bill is very simple.
Notwithstanding the Government's intention, I cannot see what it is that the committee will produce that is more robust or comprehensive than this if we are dealing specifically and only with the issue of microbeads. That is the point I really want to make. I welcome this interaction and the bona fides of the Department officials. I recognise the challenge. Maybe the wording of my Bill needs work and I acknowledge that. One could amend my Bill to say that microbeads or microplastics means plastic particles of less than 5 mm in diameter, for instance.
In one fell swoop, the legislation would remove an array of products for which there is incontrovertible proof that they find their way into water courses. That could be done in a very short time. That was also the intention of Senator Grace O'Sullivan's Bill before it was opposed. I do not see why that could not be done at an early juncture while working on the wider issues in relation to marine litter in parallel. The witnesses came here with the issue of marine litter very firmly in their sights.
Finally, I return to Senator Grace O'Sullivan's point that the funding for research on this is something that needs to be looked at. I will go to Science Foundation Ireland and will speak to the Minister and the Marine Institute to see if there is a mechanism. It may be that there is a mechanism for researching this area in terms of societal challenges through Horizon 2020. I was at the negotiating table for Horizon 2020 and recall that this was looked at as one of the societal challenges and that there should be funds available for this. It would not take a lot of money to buttress the research that the witnesses are doing which is vital if we are looking at the entirety of the coastline of Ireland.
Mr. Roger Harrington:
I will first respond to Deputy Mick Barry. We have had a discussion on microbeads, microplastics and microfibers and what we will include in the legislation. I agree with one of my colleagues from GMIT who said there will be a need for ongoing legislation in this particular area. Our thinking currently is that we should proceed with the microbeads element in the first piece of legislation. Much work will have to be done on microplastics and microfibers, specifically on what we will prohibit. We must be very careful about those definitions. If we can expand the legislation we will try to do so but we are currently going to hold on in the area of microbeads.
I do not have any specific information on the Deputy's query relating to the US, but I will get some information and return to him with it.
I appreciate Deputy Sherlock's bona fides on this. We have a number of issues with the Bill to which he referred, which we outlined at the time. I am not sure if it is a simple matter of changing the definitions. There is much more detailed and robust work which needs to be done in developing this legislation. If the Chairman and the committee wanted to invite us here again when we are more advanced in the development of our own legislation to discuss this issue again, we would be happy to oblige.
Dr. Róisín Nash:
I will answer Deputy Barry's question on the impact of bioaccumulation because I do not want anyone to leave this meeting having decided not to eat fish. Humans can pass microplastics so we are fine. When one buys fish, it is gutted and that is where all the microplastics are contained so they are quite safe to eat. There are other issues around nanoplastics which are a whole other area.
On bioaccumulation, we can see that sea birds have died but that it mainly as a result of macroplastics, which they cannot pass. We are specifically not looking at nanoplastics, which refers to chemicals being absorbed, but it does bioaccumulate and go up the food chain with fish eating insects, but when the guts are removed they are quite safe for us to eat.
There is no scaremongering here. I thank all the witnesses and officials for coming before the committee. In Deputy Sherlock's words, I found it to be a great tutorial. It was far more in depth than what I had read initially, so I appreciate the detail that was brought to the committee. Deputy Sherlock's Bill remains on our work programme but we will work in tandem with the Department if it has a Bill. We would be happy for the officials to come in at any time that it has the information available. We look forward to further engagement.