Thursday, 26 October 2017
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Michael D'Arcy.
Let me set the matter in context. Sir David Attenborough has called for the world to cut back on its use of plastics in order to protect the oceans. A recent investigation carried out by The Guardianestablished that consumers around the world bought 1 million plastic bottles every minute. Plastic production is set to double in the next 20 years and quadruple by 2050. Around the world more than 8 million tonnes of plastic leaks into the oceans. A recent study found that billions of people around the globe were drinking water contaminated by plastic.
A year ago this week I introduced a Bill, the Micro-plastics and Micro-bead Pollution Prevention Bill 2016, with the support of the Civic Engagement Group in the Seanad. The aim of the legislation was to address the growing problem of micro-plastic pollution in the oceans, rivers and seas. In spite of warm statements of support for the principles of the Bill from the then Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney, the Government, together with Fianna Fáil, voted it down. In speaking against it the then Minister promised action on micro-beads within one year, together with a new regime to establish a number of much needed marine protected areas. At a seminar hosted by Sustainable Water Action Network in April this year he once again gave assurances that the Government was working on and would soon publish an oceans Bill to finally create a coherent network of marine protected areas, MPAs, to protect the oceans and bring us into compliance with the EU marine strategy framework directive. One year on there is no sign of either. Micro-plastics pollution is a serious problem and since this time last year we have seen a large number of new reports on the negative impact of micro-plastics on the marine environment, filling much of the previous data gap. In June the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, published a report that found that exposure to micro-plastics in drinking water and food prepared with contaminated water posed a risk to human health and wildlife.
The Green Party's Bill would have introduced the concept of micro-plastic pollution into Irish law for the first time and allowed us to show some leadership. It would have banished all products containing micro-beads from the shelves and obliged the EPA to perform and publish annual tests for micro-plastic pollution. The Minister would have been obliged to present the EPA's findings to the Oireachtas, together with solutions.
The Government claimed that a ban would be contrary to EU Single Market rules, but during the debate it highlighted exceptions to the rules. The then Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, illustrated this by writing to Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Commissioner Vella to say Ireland would act on the issue. It seemed that the Government was genuine in its commitment to tackle plastic and micro-plastic pollution and, to its credit, it engaged in a public consultation process on the issue early this year. The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, even told his colleagues at the Council of Ministers that Ireland would not wait for EU measures on micro-plastics but would press ahead with its own legislation to tackle the problem. The subsequent Labour Party Bill tabled by Deputy Sean Sherlock to ban micro-beads was allowed to pass the first hurdle in the Dáil and is still being considered, yet progress has since stalled.
What is most serious is that there is absolutely no sign in the Government's autumn legislative agenda of the oceans Bill, something the Green Party would greatly welcome. We have seen the Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, recently oppose the joint Green Party-Labour Party effort to introduce a deposit recycling system and a ban on non-recyclable or non-compostable single use plastics. What is the status of the oceans Bill? Is the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government working on it and what will be its scope? Will efforts be made by the Government to begin the process of tackling plastic marine waste and protecting key habitats? Clearly, Government statements that protection of the environment from plastic pollution was a priority have not been reflected in the actions taken to date. The European Union has been informed; the public consultation process has been concluded and many promises have been made. Therefore, I ask the Minister of State to tell where the oceans Bill is.
I thank the Senator for highlighting these important marine environmental issues. I know that she is passionate about the marine environment and all of the issues connected with it, as was evidenced by the debate on the Private Members' Bill she introduced in this House in November 2016 to prohibit micro-beads.
On the proposed legislation on micro-beads, work has been ongoing on the matter in the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government which has responsibility for it. In February it launched an online public consultation process on a proposed legislative ban on certain products containing plastic micro-beads. It received just over 3,000 responses. The volume and diversity of the responses received suggest civil society and relevant stakeholders are extremely interested in these matters and, more broadly, show an awareness of marine environmental matters. The Department is in the process of assessing the very large volume of submissions received and this exercise will inform the subsequent process of legislative development. As highlighted in previous debates on this issue, any proposed national prohibition on products containing micro-beads which might have implications for the principle of the free movement of goods in the European Union would require the approval of the European Commission and be required to be compatible with EU Single Market rules. The Department will forward the required notifications to the European Commission and the World Trade Organization, WTO, as soon as the relevant draft legislation has been developed to a sufficient point.
The Government is committed to development of primary legislation to provide for the creation of a network of marine protected areas, MPAs, in accordance with the requirements of the marine strategy framework directive. Of course, as the Senator will be aware, with regard to special spatial protection measures for the marine environment, we are not starting with a blank canvas. There is already a significant number of protected areas under the EU birds and habitats directives which are regulated by my colleague, the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. They include a significant number of special areas of conservation and special protected areas. The intention is to add new types of marine spatial protection measure to the existing measures and, over time, provide for the designation of a coherent and representative network of marine protected areas. The intention is to allow for the designation of various types of marine protected area by regulation, including their geographical delineation and the provision of the necessary special protection measures required for the marine protected area in question.These regulations will identify what human activities, if any, need to be managed, or limited, in each potential marine protected area, MPA, and will identify the time periods where such restrictions apply.
In terms of legislation, the approach is to include the provisions regarding marine protected areas in the forthcoming maritime area and foreshore (amendment) Bill which is being developed by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. That Department is awaiting further advice from the Attorney General on this legislation. As the process of implementation of any legislation is of paramount importance, it is envisaged that this legislation will also provide for enforcement powers and create penalties for offences where they do not currently exist in law.
Leaving aside the current work on microbeads and marine protected areas, the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government develops marine environment policy, principally through the implementation of the marine strategy framework directive, MSFD. The MSFD forms the basis of our sustainable interaction with our marine environment. The purpose of the MSFD is to integrate environmental considerations into all aspects of marine policy and activity in order that we maintain or reach a point of good environmental status, or GES, in our seas and oceans and, thereafter, that we ensure that this status is maintained through sustainable use of our seas. The directive requires that we assess our marine environment, develop GES targets and indicators, monitor our environment in light of these, and, where necessary, introduce a programme of measures to address issues affecting GES being achieved.
I am pleased to inform the House that the Department has started preparation for the second cycle of the multi-cycle, multi-phase marine strategy framework directive. A good deal of knowledge has been gained in the initial cycle of the process, and it is intended to build on this experience for the second cycle. This will see improved descriptions of all aspects of the marine environment and the environmental targets associated with them. The second cycle will also see the development of a more effective monitoring programme and programme of measures. The Department also intends to address gaps identified subject to financial constraints, science-knowledge advances and technological developments.
I will be brief. I thank the Minister of State for that reply, which I appreciate. With regard to the marine strategy framework directive, the Minister talked about the environment. With marine plastics, and particularly microplastics and microbeads, we are now talking about human health. These plastics are being found in the crustacea, the little shrimp and different foods we eat here in Ireland. They were found in studies by the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT, and by the National University of Ireland, Galway, NUIG. This is an issue not just of the global environment but of human health. That is why it is vital that we address it as a matter of urgency.