Seanad debates

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Microbeads (Prohibition) Bill 2019: Second Stage


Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

1:30 pm

Photo of Catherine NooneCatherine Noone (Fine Gael)
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I remind Senators that all Stages are to be conducted this evening and that debate is to be concluded within two hours.

Photo of Eoghan MurphyEoghan Murphy (Dublin Bay South, Fine Gael)
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I am very pleased to present the Microbeads (Prohibition) Bill 2019 to the Seanad after its successful passage through the Dáil. The Bill represents our determination to be in the vanguard of safeguarding our environment, thus protecting future generations in the coming years. The cross-party support the Bill received in the Dáil was most welcome. It is gratifying to be able to work together for such positive purposes.

It is timely to be debating this Bill this evening following the announcement last Wednesday by the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, of a European green new deal. This deal is aimed at restructuring the European economy at all levels to arrest further climate change and to protect ecology and the environment, preventing further biodiversity loss and reducing pollution. One of the stated objectives of the Commission's green new deal is to follow up on the 2018 plastics strategy which focused on measures to tackle intentionally-added microplastics and unintentional releases of plastics, among other things. The Microbeads (Prohibition) Bill, which will reduce the amount of microplastics released into the environment, fits perfectly with this objective and puts Ireland in the vanguard of international efforts to meet this challenge. Ireland has previously led the charge with measures such as our plastic bag levy and smoking ban. A small number of other states have introduced restrictions on the sale of rinse down the drain cosmetic products containing plastic microbeads. However, this Bill goes further than that by restricting their manufacture and export, as well as sale. More significantly, its scope extends to cover household and industrial cleaning products containing plastic microbeads, which no other EU member state has done to date. This reflects our national position, held since 2015, of seeking the phase-out of all such products across the EU at the earliest opportunity. My concern about microbeads is shared across all parties and throughout broader society. I commend the former Senator, Grace O'Sullivan, MEP, and Deputy Sherlock, who earlier introduced Private Members' Bills on this topic. This Bill responds to those Bills and I am happy to work with Senators in order that we can have the legislation enacted and in operation before the end of this year.

As the Bill limits the type of product that can be sold on the Irish market, Ireland was obliged to seek a derogation under the EU Single Market rules which aim to prevent member states erecting artificial barriers to trade. Derogations can be sought on environmental and health grounds. To ensure the final legislation would be operable we notified the European Commission of the provisions of the Bill following Second Stage in Dáil Éireann. This required a three-month standstill period to give the Commission and other member states the opportunity to seek clarifications or to raise objections. While the Commission raised a small number of definitional points, there were no objections raised within the standstill period which meant that, on 22 October, Ireland was in a position to proceed with enactment of the Bill. To facilitate early enactment, it is important that the technical scope of the legislation is not expanded during the legislative process to avoid a further requirement for notification. With this in view, I am grateful that the Bill has had such a smooth passage through Committee and Report Stages in the Dáil. Issues raised by the Commission related to potential areas of difference between proposed EU legislation and this Bill relating to the minimum size of microbeads and permissible concentration levels of microbeads in products. I responded to these points by proposing some minor definitional amendments on Committee Stage in the Dáil and I will elaborate on these when setting out the content of the Bill in detail.

The purpose of the Bill is to make it an offence to manufacture or place on the market for sale or supply certain products containing plastic microbeads. This is due to their potential for environmental harm as microplastic litter in marine and freshwater environments. In the Bill, placing on the market means selling, offering or exposing for sale, advertising, distributing for free, importing, exporting or supplying. The Bill will also prohibit the disposal of any substances containing plastic microbeads down the drain or directly into freshwater or marine environments. The Bill is one of a range of measures being brought forward nationally, across the EU and through international conventions such as the OSPAR Convention, the sea convention to protect the north-east Atlantic, to reduce the impact of marine litter.

Due to its buoyancy, plastic is easily carried by currents or blown by winds from land or sea sources. They persist in the environment for an extremely long period and cannot be easily recovered. Larger items break down into secondary microplastic particles and there is now a growing body of evidence to indicate that plastics and microplastics may be impacting marine habitats and fauna negatively. National and international research continues to confirm that microplastics are also being ingested by all forms of marine life from the smallest plankton to the largest filter-feeding whales. This is happening in every part of the marine environment.

Microplastics are also found in freshwater. An Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, funded study published in 2017 found that not only were microplastics to be found throughout Irish freshwater environments but traces could even be found in our drinking water. Indeed, the group of chief scientific advisers to the European Commission recently reported that microplastic pollution has been found throughout the environment, including in air and soil as well as water. This is not merely a marine or freshwater issue or concern.

Microplastics are small, non-biodegradable solid plastic particles less than 5 mm wide in their largest dimension. They are entering the marine environment directly in a wide variety of forms. These include fibres shred from clothes, lost raw material pellets or microbeads used in cosmetics, cleansing products and detergents. Microbeads are one element of the overall microplastic problem. The Bill reinforces public and industry awareness of the problem and prepares society for more challenging measures to be introduced in the coming years. The most effective solution to tackling microplastic pollution is to tackle it at source. The Bill covers products that are likely to end up in watercourses and wastewater systems. These are products designed to be rinsed or washed off down the drain. The Bill should be seen within the context of work at EU level to develop EU-wide REACH - registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals - regulations to address primary microplastics entering the environment. The introduction of such regulations was committed to in the EU plastics strategy introduced in 2018.

I will now outline the purpose and operation of each section of the Bill. Section 1 sets out the definitions of key terms used in the Bill. Section 2 makes it an offence to manufacture or place on the market rinse-off cosmetic and cleaning products containing plastic microbeads.

Section 3 provides for exemptions for medical products and sunscreen products to protect human health and materials being used for scientific research. It provides that regulations can be made exempting certain essential industrial cleaning agents where no microbead-free substitutes exist.

Section 4 makes it an offence to dispose of substances containing plastic microbeads down the drain or directly into any body of water. Section 5 sets out the powers of authorised persons. Section 6 provides for the prosecution of company officers or members of a body corporate for offences under this Bill. Section 7 provides for the fining or imprisonment or both of persons found guilty of an offence.

Section 8 provides that the Environmental Protection Agency may bring summary proceedings for an offence and for the court to have the power to order the persons found guilty of committing an offence under this Act to pay the agency's costs. Section 9 provides for the Minister to request enforcement activity reports from the agency. Section 10 provides for administrative costs for the proposed legislation to be paid out of voted expenditure. Section 11 sets out the Short Title and commencement of the Bill.

Some of the more important provisions include appropriate technical definitions of "microplastic", "microbead", "cosmetics" and "plastic", which are central to the success of this legislation. The Bill incorporates definitions that are robust, enforceable, future-proofed and in line with current scientific research. I introduced a technical amendment for the definition of "microbead" on Committee Stage in the Dáil to align it with the EU standards by adding a minimum dimension of 1 nanometre at its narrowest point. This is in response to observations made by the Commission when the Bill was submitted for a derogation from Single Market rules. The amendment brings the legislation in line with proposed EU technical and legal definitions of microbeads. In response to EU observations I introduced an amendment on Committee Stage to create a minimum allowable concentration of plastic microbeads of 0.01% in a substance weight for weight. This will bring Ireland's legislation into line with scientific standards in proposed EU REACH regulations on the restriction of intentionally added microplastics to products. It is regarded by scientific experts as the minimum concentration below which intentionally added microbeads are not detectable.

The Bill gives responsibility to the EPA for its implementation. EPA officers and customs officers are made authorised persons and the Bill lays out their enforcement powers. It provides that a person summarily convicted would receive a class A fine or a prison sentence of up to six months or both. Conviction on indictment may mean a fine of up to €3 million or a prison sentence of up to five years or both.

The Bill is not expected to have a significant impact on Irish businesses. Industry is fully aware that international opinion has turned against plastic microbeads. Banning them is a key feature of the EU's 2018 European strategy for plastics in a circular economy. Restrictions on the sale of rinse-off cosmetic products containing plastic microbeads have been introduced in France, Sweden and the UK, among other countries. Manufacturers are already turning to alternatives. Plastic microbeads can be cheaply replaced by natural substitutes. Indeed, many Irish cosmetic manufacturers already focus on producing products with natural ingredients. The proposed prohibition is not expected to have much impact on consumer choice. Products without plastic microbeads are already widely available and preferred by consumers.

The Bill is an important measure to reduce the levels of microplastic pollution generated in Ireland. Its scope puts Ireland legislatively at the forefront in Europe and gives us a strong basis for pushing for similarly high levels of ambition in forthcoming EU instruments. There are many more steps to come in terms of microplastics and marine litter generally. Some of these will be challenging and will require a cross-sectoral and wider societal response, but I am encouraged by the level of cross-party support to date for the prohibitions on certain products containing microbeads as set out in this Bill. I thank Senators in advance for their engagement on the Bill and I hope we will be able to complete its progress this evening to allow its enactment before Christmas.

Photo of Catherine NooneCatherine Noone (Fine Gael)
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Before Senator Murnane O'Connor makes her contribution I wish to acknowledge the members of Fine Gael from the Howth, Sutton and Baldoyle branch who are in the Chamber this evening. I remind Senators that group spokespersons have eight minutes and all other Senators have five minutes each.

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Fianna Fail)
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I am delighted to speak on this important issue. Some time ago I raised the recommendation that this Government should adopt the ideas of all parties and none for this type of legislation and it is heartening to see our ideas in the Bill, as well as those of other Members. There is much similarity to the Harmful Plastics (Prohibition) Bill 2019 which was put forward by me and my Fianna Fáil colleagues. That is good. This is about working together to get things done. There are a number of amendments from Members on both sides of the House. Amendments are important. No legislator should rush through legislation, no matter how noble, due to EU deadlines. It is important to get things right. It serves nobody to have bad legislation which has to be sorted out later.

It is important that we all realise the havoc these plastics wreak on our environment. They appear to be innocent, but they are not. Microplastics are entirely unnecessary pollution and have environmental impacts. Studies have shown they can be ingested by marine animals, leading to physical harm and reproductive or toxic effects. There is evidence to suggest they are entering the human food chain, but not in enough quantity currently to suggest a human health risk.

What level of public awareness exists about the presence of these pollutants in the products they use? I believe the public is unaware not only of the presence of the pollutants in so many products that sit innocently in the home but also of the serious harm they can do.Microbeads and other microplastics are used in many cosmetic and personal care products, such as scrubs, soaps, lotions and toothpastes. They are added to make the product more abrasive, such as for exfoliation or tooth whitening, and these minuscule pieces of plastic enter the environment when consumers rinse them down the drain.

I agree with the Bill. We need to do so much more for our environment. However, the Bill is not worth the paper it is written on without a massive public awareness campaign. Our amendments reflect that concern and I would urge caution in rushing this through without a consultation process which also invites all manufacturers of plastic consumer product packaging in the State to have their say, which is very important. We need to establish a consultation process under the legislation involving all key shareholders from the fisheries, recreational fisheries, tourism, energy, conservation and other relevant sectors to propose and review protections for such protected areas and to input into future designations. It is sometimes said that votes are a massive part of a legislator's work but actual legislation and the shaping of it is by far the most important job here, and we need to ensure we do our job on such an important Bill.

While I would welcome Ireland leading the way in the EU and following the US to ban these pollutants, I would like to know more about our enforcement. If we do ban their use, will there be inducements or encouragement for the manufacturing sector to phase out their use?

Seal Rescue Ireland, which receives practically no State funding to do its important work, was earlier this year releasing seals that had been badly hurt in the ocean back into the wild. During the release, its members spoke to schoolchildren about the importance of our oceans and our marine life. It struck me that, for an island nation, we do not prioritise our oceans, beaches or marine life. We need to start immediately, given the ocean is the place these pollutants end up. It has to stop and this legislation will ensure that happens.

The marine sector is a vital part of Ireland's economy. It provides a key part of our tourism sector and our film industry, creates and sustains jobs, boosts small local economies and enriches our landscapes. Protecting and maintaining the quality of our oceans is a pressing concern for the long-term health of our State for future generations. If the House will excuse the pun, we need to take our heads out of the sand.

Ireland has specific legally-binding EU obligations in regard to achieving good environmental standards in our seas. However, the Government has failed to effectively implement the required steps. Linked to this is the failure of a number of our beaches to pass EPA standards. Our tourism sector draws heavily from the clean oceans that sustain our nation. Our marine life depends on our clean oceans. Making it an offence to dispose of any substances containing plastic microbeads down the drain or directly into any freshwater or marine environments, as stated in this Bill, will go far to protecting and cleaning up our seas.

Ireland has failed in its European and international obligations to protect 10% of its marine waters under Article 13 of the marine strategy framework directive, MSFD, the Aichi biodiversity targets, the UN sustainable development goals and the OSPAR Convention. Ireland was declared a whale and dolphin sanctuary in 1991, yet we read that the number of whales and dolphins becoming beached has increased by 350% in the past ten years. The Irish Wildlife Trust report of 2018 shows that 48 species native to Irish waters are facing extinction. Fossil fuel exploration seismic testing has been occurring regularly in Irish waters since 2013, severely impacting all marine life in the areas in which it is conducted.

In May 2018, we in Fianna Fáil supported the actions proposed in the motion debated in the Seanad to strengthen Ireland's role in protecting our natural oceanic resources for future generations. Ireland's Clean Oceans initiative was launched at the beginning of this year, yet this is the first co-ordinated action on land and at sea to address the serious issue of pollution of the oceans with plastics. Tackling our unsustainable production of plastic waste and microbeads has to take priority. We are all on this Earth together and we need to do our bit to help the future generations who will inherit the consequences of the decisions we make now. This is becoming a huge issue. People want to learn. I ask for an awareness campaign to let people know what is happening, which will be crucial. It is wonderful that we will, hopefully, get the Bill through today. The Minister has my support.

Photo of Tim LombardTim Lombard (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister and I acknowledge the importance of the Bill. It is significant legislation and is something we have been talking about since 2016, since the beginning of this Seanad. I wish to acknowledge the former Green Party Senator from Waterford, Grace O'Sullivan, MEP, who was very much involved in this space and she spoke passionately on this issue many times in the Chamber.

Today is about trying to get this legislation through the Houses of the Oireachtas in order that we can have it signed by Christmas, which would be a very positive step. It would also be a very positive statement of intent by the Government, the Oireachtas and the people that they want change when it comes to issues regarding microbeads. Microbeads might be the smallest thing one sees in one's shampoo but this is a huge issue for society and it does come up on the doorsteps. It is an issue we need to progress and to champion and we need to ensure the Irish people get what they want, which is strong legislation.

I compliment the Minister on the consultation with the European Union in advance of the passage of the legislation. A lot of the groundwork for this legislation has been done and we are not waiting for EU approval as we have done that work. That kind of template is what we need to see with other legislation. We do not want to complete work on legislation and then ask Europe for approval. We have done the groundwork and we can now, hopefully, pass this important Bill.

What it means for society is that young people, in particular, who have been championing environmental issues, can see we are taking major steps forward. If we had had this debate in 2016, I am not sure there would have been such universal support throughout the House for it but we have that support now. That is because society has changed and young people have really become champions of this, and politicians have reacted and have brought forward this important legislation.

From our side of the House, we want to see this passed today in order that we can have the major changes that are required in industry and which everyone wants. The doomsday scenario is if it was not passed and if it was held up by an amendment. Who knows what is going to happen in the new year, and this important legislation could be sitting on the desk, perhaps for another Government to work on. This is an important night, a night when we can work together to ensure we pass this legislation. I acknowledge the hard work of the Minister and his officials to bring it to this level so fast. We need to take the hard steps tonight to get it over the line.

Photo of Fintan WarfieldFintan Warfield (Sinn Fein)
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Sinn Féin will be supporting the Bill, as we did with the Private Member's Bills of then Senator, now MEP, Grace O’Sullivan and Deputy Sean Sherlock. The passing of this Bill today will be in no small part due to Grace O’Sullivan, MEP, in particular and I believe without her efforts and the efforts of Ed Davitt, her assistant, this Bill might not have happened.

I am reminded of the debate we had on Senator Grace O’Sullivan’s Bill at this time three years ago. Fianna Fáil stated it opposed the Bill in favour of bringing its own legislation in a matter of weeks, which never happened. The Government introduced and passed a motion to stall the Bill’s progress for entirely cynical reasons, suggesting that we must await EU law, namely, the marine strategy framework directive and other domestic legislation. All the while, Britain, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden have all legislated to ban microbeads prior to the directive.

It is a lesson, though probably not one we will learn from. It is a lesson that when the Government has the option of working with Members to progress their Bills, rather than stalling their efforts and wasting our valuable Private Members' time, engaging with Members in a constructive fashion on the Bills they have proposed is probably best practice. We do not have a lot of Private Members' time and we could have hundreds more Private Members' slots in this Chamber if we wanted to. On my own legislation focusing on young people, we could not get support for the lowering of the voting age to 16 in local and European elections, and I wonder why. That Bill was once delayed for a year and then voted against when we brought it back.I believe we could have hundreds more Private Members' business slots available to Members and better Government engagement with the proposals.

Regardless of all of that I welcome this long-overdue Bill. Prohibition of microbeads and microplastics is crucial to upholding our biodiversity. With depleting fish stocks it is crucial that we take this measure along with many other measures in response to climate change.

Countless scientific studies prove that fish have been found to be feeding on prey-sized plastics and end up consuming the plastic in preference to zooplankton. This has a knock-on effect for carnivorous fish, which ingest plastic-filled smaller fish. This was reflected on the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government when the committee discussed the Bill. Dr. Róisín Nash from Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology told the committee that low levels of mircoplastics had been found in the intestinal tracts of fish from Irish coastlines. A study by the Ryan Institute at the National University of Ireland, Galway, revealed how pervasive the problem is. A total of 73% of deep-water fish studied had microbeads or microplastics in their bodies.

The World Wide Fund for Nature commissioned a survey earlier this year which found that a typical human may be ingesting the equivalent of a credit card of microplastics every week. No major health risks have been found yet from this ingestion. However, fish that ingest microplastics are in our oceans and on our plates and that causes a health risk. Ocean levels and fish stocks uphold the biodiversity in our oceans and help in combatting pollution.

I am keen to see stronger action across the board from Government on this issue. We should not have to wait three years for minor prohibitions to be made. That is what happened with this proposal. We simply do not have the time. This crisis is urgent.

Photo of Pippa HackettPippa Hackett (Green Party)
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I thank the Minister for his speech on this important issue. It has already been acknowledged but I wish to acknowledge the work of my Green Party colleague and former Senator, Grace O'Sullivan, who drafted legislation on this issue. It was presented in the Chamber in 2016. Here we are three years later. It is welcome to see the Bill here.

The impact of plastic, not only in its manufacture but in its use and disposal, is vast. The term "microbeads" would have been unfamiliar to many three or four years ago but it is a familiar term nowadays. That is welcome and it is welcome that the Bill is before the Chamber now.

We should be careful to ensure that the Bill is robust and strong enough to offer full protection to our environment, especially its waterways and oceans. We must not permit loopholes to exist in the Bill that would challenge that protection. That is the basis of many of our amendments to the Bill. It is promising to hear the Minister acknowledge that the science is constantly changing. We strongly believe the Bill must reflect that fact.

Will the Minister comment on the EU derogation that was sought? I do not believe the wording of the derogation was subject to consultation in the Dáil or among other stakeholders, especially the NGOs and scientists who are working actively in this area. Will the Minister clarify whether such consultation took place and, if not, why not?

Photo of Kevin HumphreysKevin Humphreys (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. Well done to him. It took a long period to bring through the legislation. I wish to acknowledge the work of the former Senator, Grace O'Sullivan, in 2016. I had the pleasure of voting for it in the House at the time. I am also grateful for the work of the former Minister of State, Deputy Sean Sherlock, and the co-operation shown across party lines in bringing the legislation forward today.

As with all legislation, we do our absolute best to ensure it is the best it can be. However, sometimes legislation goes further than envisaged. It is a matter of leadership. It is a matter of a message going out to the public to the effect that this is a serious matter and the Government is prepared to show leadership by bringing through the microbeads legislation.

A new Government may, and probably will, review the measures outlined in this legislation as science changes, and so it should. It is important that we are united in our stance in getting this legislation through tonight. It should be enacted by the end of the year. Then, any new Government that comes in the following years can review, improve and strengthen it. Environmental legislation in Ireland needs to be reviewed and strengthened.

I take issue with Senator Lombard's contribution and his comments on leadership. We need not always wait for the public to catch up. The science has been telling us for a long time that microbeads are a problem and have been getting into the food chain and causing damage. That is why the former Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, brought the legislation to the House. That is why the former Senator, Grace O'Sullivan, brought Private Members' legislation to the House. That was when leadership should have been shown within this House. A majority of people should have voted for it. We would have seen the legislation introduced at an earlier stage. That is no criticism of the Minister because he has worked in co-operation with Grace O'Sullivan and the former Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, on this issue. More and more, we need politicians to show leadership rather than wait for the public to catch up. Since entering the House it has been more and more problematic. We fought tooth and nail on the Heritage Bill. We laid out clearly the damage to the microclimate and our biodiversity. Unfortunately, we were not listened to at that stage. Thankfully, that legislation was never enacted. Those responsible took our views on board. However, it was terrible that we had to go through days, weeks and months arguing the point only to be told that the plan for the Twenty-six Counties was only a pilot.

I congratulate the Minister. I have no wish to speak too long on this Bill. I will not be supporting any of the amendments because I believe there is a sense of urgency to pass this legislation tonight. It should be enacted this year to send the message to the public that politicians now take climate change seriously. We understand the effects and impact it has on people's health with microplastics getting into the food chain. We understand the long-term damage that they are doing to our eco-system. I congratulate the Minister on getting the legislation this far. Certainly, I will be doing nothing this evening to delay the Bill from being enacted in the House or to prevent the legislation being signed by the President, hopefully, this year so we can see enforcement taking place.

I congratulate the Minster, the former Senator, Grace O'Sullivan, the former Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, and the Department officials on working closely together to get this legislation to this stage tonight.

Photo of Alice-Mary HigginsAlice-Mary Higgins (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister to the House and broadly welcome the legislation. It is important that we move forward on it. As was mentioned, it is important that when issues are identified by any party in the Oireachtas we need to be able to listen to each other, engage with each other and hear the ideas of others.

In 2016 the former Senator, Grace O'Sullivan, put forward legislation. I was a co-signer of that legislation, as was Senator Ruane. The three of us put forward the legislation at the time. We were speaking based on the science and the facts in terms of what we knew about the damage that microplastics were doing to the environment. That was before "The Blue Planet" documentary series and before the popular concern. It was based on evidence and it was an argument to the good in that regard. Ireland cannot afford to wait for wide popular outcry on each issue before we move forward and take action. It is similar with the legislation put forward by Deputy Sherlock. This legislation was being put forward before the issue became part of the popular consciousness. It was before we had schoolchildren begging us to take action, as they now are on these issues.

Another point is important to note. It is not simply a matter that we said it in 2016 and we have lost three years.We are now, in 2019, raising concerns in respect of other issues, such as fracking. A motion put forward by our Seanad group, together with former Senator, Grace O'Sullivan, highlighted Ireland's extraordinary dearth of marine protected areas, which are vital in terms of climate action and protecting our fragile marine ecology. That is another good proposal which I hope is taken up by the Government and implemented sooner rather than later. Since we introduced our Bill in 2016, the science has moved on and each new discovery has served only to accelerate our concern. I recognise that there are elements in the Government's Bill which build on what we proposed in 2016 and which reflect the accelerated scientific awareness. For example, in 2017, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation discovered that at a certain point, we will be moving towards having more plastic than fish in the oceans, which is extraordinary. Last March, research by Anela Choy published in Scientific Reportsdetailed that microplastics, which were previously seen as more of a surface concern, are to be found at the deepest levels of the ocean, as deep as 3,200 ft, and within marine organisms of every kind, not just fish.

In the context of the evolving science, we are concerned about loopholes in the legislation. Whether or not the Minister accepts some or all of our amendments, I ask that he listen with seriousness to the flags and loopholes we have identified. He has made the case regarding the derogation he sought, which has its own time process. However, we are learning new things all the time and identifying new dangers and potential loopholes. It will facilitate our moving forward in an effective way through Committee Stage if the Minister would indicate that he recognises this issue is not done and dusted but is, in fact, an evolving area. For instance, one of our Committee Stage amendments proposes that the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, should have a function to review these issues and seek to have further and strengthened legislation. This would offer a guarantee that the concerns and loopholes we are flagging now, even if they are not addressed in this legislation, will be subject to a continuous process of review. We are seeking an assurance that the Government is not simply being dragged into addressing these issues but, rather, is looking to gather for itself the best possible information and will be proactive in strengthening legislation in this area into the future.

Many people in this country are concerned about the issues we are highlighting. This is an important moment in time. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, is engaged in negotiations on fishing against a background of huge concern about overfishing and the degradation of our marine environment from that perspective. In addition, we have a single-use plastics directive from the EU on which other countries are moving to legislate. However, we continue to talk about possible levies and lifestyle changes rather than moving towards a prohibition on many forms of single-use plastics, as we will be required to do within the next two years. There must be a sea change in how we approach this area and that is why I am flagging these related issues. We must have a culture of ambition when it comes to dealing with plastics and how we treat our oceans. I hope the Minister will offer us some assurance in terms of what the next steps might be in the wake of this legislation.

Photo of Eoghan MurphyEoghan Murphy (Dublin Bay South, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senators for their contributions. Many people are not aware of the huge amount of work that goes on in my Department in regard to the marine environment. There is not a great awareness of my responsibility in this area, as my public engagements tend to be dominated by the housing crisis. However, from the OSPAR Commission to the British-Irish Council, we are involved in a great deal of work in this area, particularly in respect of the closer marine environment region, to ensure that we bring forward the most progressive proposals we can. This work is not just about legal changes but also comprises the awareness campaigns that need to be done. They are aimed not so much at young people, because they already get it, but at informing those who are out of education and may not be in tune with the new scientific studies and discoveries. In the United Kingdom, there has been something of a national awakening as a result of things like the BBC's "Blue Planet" and "Blue Planet II" series, which featured footage of a young calf whale who suffocated after consuming plastic. At one of the conferences I attended, the politicians from the UK were all talking about the moment in which it clicked in their heads, as it had done for the British population, that something needed to be done. It is important to recognise, as Senator Lombard did, the contribution our officials have made in this area on behalf of Ireland. Notwithstanding the important work that was progressed by former Senator, Grace O'Sullivan, and Deputy Sherlock, it has been Ireland's official position since 2015 that the EU should ban microplastics.

Senator Murnane O'Connor spoke about the political process in terms of dealing with these issues. It is true that former Senator, Grace O'Sullivan, and Deputy Sherlock led the way in introducing legislation, which we then took and sought to progress as fast as we could. I acknowledge that the delays were frustrating but it is good to see everybody piling in behind what is now an agreed position on microbeads and microplastics. We are not working to EU deadlines but to our own deadlines. In fact, this legislation is more progressive than what is required under current EU law. We did not rush things. We had two public consultations, the first of which received more than 3,000 responses, making it one of the largest ever responses to a public consultation. There has been a huge public awareness campaign on these issues. Industry is well aware of what we have proposed and what is coming. The EPA was allocated €250,000 for the first year of enforcement and its powers are significant, with the possibility for transgressors of five years in jail and a €3 million penalty if indicted. These are not small penalties to suffer where one is found to be in breach of the law. There will be no waiting period in terms of these provisions; once the legislation passes, I will be in a position to bring it into law almost immediately.

Senator Murnane O'Connor and others referred to marine protected areas. We have given a commitment to designate 10% of our seas as such, at a minimum, and I have already said that this is not good enough. Our marine area is seven times the landmass for which we are responsible. Even 10% of that is huge, but we can go bigger. Some weeks ago, I appointed Professor Tasman Crowe of UCD to put together a committee to advise the Government on how we can go beyond the 10% designation level and what else we should do in this area. At the same time, we are bringing forward new planning legislation for the marine area, a new marine spatial strategy and a new marine policy statement. Huge reforms are happening in this area which will help us to protect what is an important source of wealth for us as an island nation. I do not use "wealth" in the traditional sense in this context. When one goes to events organised by Clean Coasts, for example, one can see how much people love and respect the marine environment. We must continue to protect that environment for future generations.

I agree with Senator Lombard that when we get things right, working together, we can be at the vanguard of what the EU is doing. Indeed, this Bill is among the most progressive of any legislation introduced by member states for the purpose of banning microbeads. I agree that the public cares about the environment. We have several positive programmes in place that are helping to advance even more awareness to communities about the importance of beach cleans and so on. The Love Your Coast photography awards have been running successfully for ten years or so. Such initiatives help us to promote to the public the importance of protecting our coastlines and marine and freshwater environments. Another group of people doing important work alongside the Government's efforts is the Riptide Movement, which created a huge plastic whale and brought it around the country to demonstrate to people the quantities of plastics we are putting into the ocean. The Riptide Movement is a popular band with a young following. When its members show that they care about these issues, it makes it easier for younger people to get involved and show their support. I welcome Senator Lombard's acknowledgment of the work done by departmental officials in this area.

I thank Senator Warfield for his support, on behalf of Sinn Féin, for these proposals. It is easy to work across party lines and with Independent Members when people are genuine about what they are doing and recognise the importance of compromise. We must be careful not to sacrifice the good for the perfect. There is a lot more we want to do in this area but it is important to acknowledge that in bringing forward these provisions, we are doing something which no other EU country has done.We are extending the ban on microbeads in cosmetics to cleaning detergents, which are a significant source of microbeads and microplastic pollution in our water courses. A study of marine life carried out by researchers at NUI Galway indicates that 73% of deepwater fish have microplastics in them, which is a shockingly high percentage. There has been public engagement on things such as the "Blue Planet II" television programme. It was recently reported in the media that when the stomach of a whale that died in the Orkneys was opened, a significant volume of plastic waste was found. Of course, there have been reports of two land masses floating in our oceans. They are almost the size of continents and are made of plastic that we produced and allowed to be put into the marine environment. Senators should think of the destructive damage that plastic is causing to the marine environment.

Senator Hackett is correct on the learning point she raised. Everyone now knows what a microbead is and nobody bats an eyelid when reference is made to microplastics. Some years ago, people might have had to ask what are microbeads. Once one could refer to a cleaning product or facial scrub, people got the idea about microbeads and what they mean. We are constantly learning about where the science is and the areas in which damage and destruction could be caused, as well as how to best go about tackling those challenges. The Bill, which builds on legislation brought forward by former Senator Grace O'Sullivan and Deputy Sherlock a couple of years ago, is more robust than any other EU law in this area. Once we pass it, we will be in a position to push the EU to bring in ever more progressive laws on single-use plastics and other products containing microplastics. It will set a standard for other EU countries to meet, which is important. We consulted before the derogation. GMIT supported us in our work on the derogation because we wanted to make sure we got it right. That support was very welcome and helpful.

Senator Humphreys referred to this being bigger than the simple legislation. In a way, I agree with him. We both represent coastal communities and I know we both love our coast. There is a message here. The Bill signifies an Oireachtas, rather than just a Government, party or individual, that is trying to bring in robust laws recognising what we have known for several years. We need to take action in these areas through robust legislation, strong enforcement powers and, where possible, going further and leading other EU nations, as we are doing. He is correct that this is one step in the process. There is far more that we want to do. We must do it as best we can in tandem with our EU partners, going further where we can and seeing whether they can catch up with us. We must recognise that because we are in a union, we must ensure we are aligned in as many ways as possible, hence some of the changes to the definitions in the Bill following the derogation request.

On the issues raised by Senator Higgins, I cannot speak to the events in 2016. Ireland's official EU position has been to ban microbeads and we are now able to do so, which is welcome. I addressed her point regarding SACs, which are important. Our marine environment is seven times larger than our land mass. Even 10% of it is significant. We will go further than that. The committee to which the Senator referred has been established. The chair was appointed and the remaining members were approved by me in the past four weeks. They will report to me in the course of next year on how we can go further. That will take place in tandem with public consultations on our marine spatial strategy, which will begin and end in the first quarter of next year.

We have listened every step of the way on potential loopholes. I have made changes with officials following our engagement with Senators and Deputies. Some of the changes were held off line to avoid unnecessary delay in the passage of the legislation. We are banning what we know we can ban now, given the constraints on us as a member of the European Union and without breaching EU law, while recognising that we need to go further; we will do so. By going this far, which is further than anyone else, we will be in a very strong position to be the instigator of further swift change within the EU.

I am a big believer in reviewing new legislation within a year. One must take time after a year to see how the policy impacted when it left the House and hit the real world. I will ask the EPA to report on implementation of the Bill. I have that power under the legislation. There will be an examination of how it has used its resources and additional funding to enforce the Bill and ensure that people are not trying to circumvent or breach it. That will be an important task to be undertaken.

We are not being dragged anywhere. We are not doing the bare minimum but, rather, going further. We should recognise and celebrate the fact that we have taken a more ambitious step than those taken to date by our EU partners. We are at the vanguard of the changes happening across the EU in terms of banning microbeads. We should champion that message with the public and let them know that politicians are listening and leading on their behalf.

Question put and agreed to.