I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The purpose of the Bill is to prohibit the use of micro-plastics, particularly for particles that are less than 5 mm in diameter. Micro-plastics are used in a variety of cosmetic and personal care products such as scrubs, soaps, lotions and toothpastes. They are added to these products to make the product more abrasive or for decoration. These particles of plastic enter the environment when consumers rinse them down the drain. The plastics are not caught in water treatment systems and, instead, are subsequently released into rivers and the sea with wastewater outflows.
Micro-plastics are an entirely unnecessary source of micro-plastic pollution and are likely to 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 that they are entering the human food chain, although micro-plastics in seafood are not currently thought to represent a human health risk. Micro-plastic debris in marine environments is growing in volume. It comes from a number of sources apart from cosmetics sources, such as the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic over time and industrial scrubbers used to blast-clean surfaces.
A number of companies are voluntarily phasing out some types of micro-plastic in cosmetic products in the EU. In the USA, a ban on micro-beads in cosmetic and personal care products will be phased in over the next few years. A call for a similar ban in the UK has been accepted by the UK Government. In December 2014, the Netherlands, Austria, Luxembourg, Belgium and Sweden issued a joint statement to EU environment Ministers calling for an EU ban on micro-plastics in cosmetics and detergents. However, a January 2016 research report commissioned by the European Commission, entitled "Study to support the development of measures to combat a range of marine litter sources", looked at what EU mechanisms were available to reduce micro-bead pollution from cosmetics. It concluded that introducing a ban on micro-beads in the EU would be more complicated than the laws “used in the US and Canada”. It said that it was “unclear as to whether any of the [existing] Directives and Regulations” that had been identified “would be suitable”. The option of unilateral action by member states remains.
To turn to the detail of the Bill, section 1 provides in standard form for the Short Title of the Bill. Section 2 provides for the prohibition of micro-plastics. It provides that a person who manufactures, sells or exposes, offers, advertises or keeps for sale, or imports or attempts to import into the State for sale any cosmetic containing micro-plastics is guilty of an offence.
"Cosmetic" is defined as "any cosmetic or personal care product including but not limited to a facial scrub, soap, lotion, shower gel, sunscreen, make-up, deodorant or toothpaste". "Micro-plastics" is defined as "plastic particles less than 5 millimetres in diameter". The section provides:
(3) A person guilty of an offence under this section is liable—
(a) on summary conviction, to a class A fine or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or to both,
(b) on conviction on indictment, to a fine or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years or to both.
Provision is made for the liability of directors, managers, secretaries etc. of corporate bodies where they consent to or connive in the commission of an offence by the corporate body. The section provides that it is a defence for an accused person to prove that he or she did not know and had no reason to suspect that the cosmetic in respect of which the offence is alleged to have been committed contained micro-plastics.
I wish to acknowledge the role of the Green Party in first raising this matter in the Houses of the Oireachtas and to acknowledge the role of Senator Grace O'Sullivan, who has led the way on this issue. I note that the Minister responded to Senator O'Sullivan in the Seanad while not accepting her Bill on the basis that the Government has said it will put forward its own legislative proposal in this regard. I accept the bona fides of the Minister when he says the Government is committed to legislating on this issue. The Minister said in his speech to the Seanad:
I see advantages in Ireland leading by example on microbeads. With this in mind, the Government will develop proposals to ban microbeads nationally in the context of a wider marine environmental Bill to be published [this] year [that is, 2017], which will also provide the legislative basis for a network of marine protected areas [and so on].
I suppose the Minister will provide some rebuttal to the Labour Party Bill. The Labour Party Bill seeks to build on the aims of the Green Party Bill. We do not seek to be partisan in any way. We believe this is an issue that affects us all and we hope there is a non-partisan solution. I am hopeful today that we will move to a position whereby our Bill, at least, is accepted and will stay on the Order Paper. Perhaps the Minister will accept our Bill. I doubt that will be the case but I hope we will be able to leave it on the Order Paper at least until such time as the Government comes up with a set of proposals.
The Minister will tell us there is an issue of EU law at play here, particularly in respect of the Single Market. The Minister will tell us that Articles 34 and 35 of the Treaty have a bearing on whether or not this legislative proposal can bear fruit. We have carefully considered the question on EU law and whether or not that would prevent member states from taking action on the issue. Articles 34 and 35 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union set out the principle that, as the Single Market is an area without internal borders, restrictions on the movement of goods are not allowed and that the free movement of goods should be guaranteed. We accept this. Undoubtedly, an Irish ban on the sale of products containing microbeads would have the effect of restricting certain imports. However, Article 36 of the treaty goes on to state that Articles 34 and 35 do not preclude prohibitions or restrictions on imports that are justified on grounds of the protection of health and life of humans, animals or plants. In other words, the EU treaty directly acknowledges that national measures can be taken to protect the environment. Microbeads, as we know, enter the environment, are not caught in water treatment systems and instead are released into rivers and the sea with wastewater outflows. Micro-plastics are an entirely unnecessary source of pollution and are likely to have environmental impacts. Studies have shown they are ingested by marine animals, leading to physical harm and toxic effects, and there is evidence to suggest they are entering the human food chain.
In December 2014, the Netherlands, Austria, Luxembourg, Belgium and Sweden issued a joint statement calling for an EU ban on micro-plastics in cosmetics and detergents to EU Ministers with responsibility for environmental matters. In January 2016 - I have already referred to this research report - they examined what EU mechanisms were available to reduce microbead pollutants from cosmetics. In light of the hesitancy at EU level, we believe domestic action - that is, action within our own Parliament - is both necessary and appropriate.
It is true that our proposed legislation amounts, on the face of it, to a trade barrier, but there is a well-established procedure for dealing with this. The EU transparency directive sets up a procedure obliging the member states to notify the Commission of all draft regulations on products before they are adopted into national law. The notification triggers a standstill period of three months. The Commission and other member states can use this time to examine the notified draft regulation to determine whether it complies with the EU treaty and the principles of free movement of goods and services. If there is no reaction, the draft can be adopted after the three-month standstill period has expired. This is exactly the procedure that the then Minister for Health, Deputy Micheál Martin, had to follow when he introduced the ban on smoking in the workplace. There was a standstill period for the new rules and then they came into full force and effect. The European Commission can block the proposal if the draft legislation concerns a matter on which the EU itself proposes to act, but this is clearly not the case at this time regarding micro-plastics. We therefore firmly believe that the option of unilateral action by Ireland on this issue is a valid one under the European Union treaty.
It is timely that we would legislate for this very important public health and environmental issue. I am hopeful that the Minister will accept the legislative proposal before the House. I anticipate that he will tell us there will be a Government legislative proposal on this very issue in the not-too-distant future. I am conscious that we have an opportunity here to collaborate now on a non-partisan issue, an issue of what I would call grave concern regarding public health. As I said, I am hopeful that the Minister will accept our bona fides on this and that we can get cross-party support on the issue and I look forward to hearing from the Minister on this matter. If it is the case that the Minister proposes to bring forward his own legislative proposal, I am hopeful that will not be tacked onto or attached to another piece of legislation. I am hopeful it would be a bespoke, stand-alone legislation because I believe Ireland should take leadership on this issue. It is something that affects us all. Again, I note that the Minister has stated he is intent on legislating for this issue. I will quote again from the Minister's speech to the Seanad:
There are approximately 6.2 trillion particles of litter in our oceans. That is 1,000 particles for every person on the planet.
The Bill is therefore tied in and allied to many other issues related to the marine environment. I stand before the House as a former Minister of State for research and innovation and someone who was committed during the lifetime of the previous Government, along with the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and the then Minister, Deputy Howlin, to ensuring taxpayers' money was used in a way that recognised the value of our maritime environment and the potential of that environment to deliver marine renewable energy. We want to see clean oceans and clean seas and, as an island nation, we need to take a global leadership position on this.