I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am pleased to present the Bill to the Dáil. As with the publication of our climate strategy earlier this week, it represents our determination to be at the vanguard of safeguarding our environment and, thus, protecting the future for the coming generations. Ireland has previously led the charge with measures such as the plastic bag levy and the smoking ban. Some other states have already introduced restrictions on the sale of "rinse down the drain" cosmetic products containing plastic microbeads. However, our Bill goes further than most 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, seeking for all such products to be phased out across the EU at the earliest opportunity.
I know my concern about microbeads is shared across all parties and throughout broader society. I commend Senator Grace O'Sullivan and Deputy Sherlock, who both introduced Private Members' Bills on this topic. We have responded to those Bills and I look forward to working with colleagues in the Oireachtas in order that we can have this Bill enacted and in operation before the end of the year. I thank the members of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government for their contribution in developing this Bill and supporting its progress. I will be referring to their recommendations at several points.
The purpose of this 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. Under the provisions of 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 substances containing plastic microbeads down the drain or directly into freshwater or marine environments.
Society is becoming acutely aware of the problem that plastic poses to the world's oceans. It is a problem we must address urgently. The Bill is one of a range of measures to reduce the impact of marine litter being brought forward nationally, across the EU and through international conventions, such as the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic, more commonly knows as the OSPAR Convention. Due to its buoyancy, plastic is easily carried by currents or blown by winds from landward or seaborne sources. It persists in the environment for an extremely long time and cannot be easily recovered. Larger items break down into secondary microplastic particles and there is a growing body of evidence to indicate that plastics and microplastics may be affecting marine habitats and fauna negatively.
I am sure everyone is aware of the vast islands of plastic floating in the North Pacific Gyre. A similar garbage patch also exists in the north Atlantic Gyre. We have all seen dreadful images of sea creatures tangled in plastic debris or having ingested huge amounts of plastic waste. National and international research continues to confirm that microplastics are also being ingested by all forms of marine life, from the smallest plankton up to the largest filter feeding whales. This is happening in every part of the marine environment. Microplastics are found in freshwater too. An 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 entire environment, including air and soil, as well as water. This is not merely just 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 variety of forms. These include fibres shed from clothes, lost raw material pellets or microbeads used in cosmetics, cleansing products and detergents. Microbeads are a small fraction of the overall microplastic problem. However, they are still entering the environment in their trillions. This Bill will address one source of microplastic pollution and help reinforce public and industry awareness of the problem. It also 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. This Bill covers products that are likely to end up in watercourses and wastewater systems. These are water-soluble products designed to be rinsed or washed off down the drain.
I do not intend to target products known in the industry as "leave-on" or "wear-off" products at this time. These are not designed to be washed off with water. While many people wipe off such products and then discard the wipes down the drain, they are not supposed to do this. Nothing other than washing water, human waste or toilet paper should be flushed down toilets or disposed of down the drain. Although there are readily available alternative ingredients to replace plastic microbeads in rinse-off cosmetic products, manufacturers cannot currently reformulate leave-on cosmetic products as easily. The impact to the cosmetics industry and to consumers would be enormous if such a blanket ban was introduced at this time. However, these products will be addressed in time. Irish officials, including my own, are working at EU level to develop EU-wide REACH - registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals - regulations to address this, along with a range of other measures relating to microplastic pollution. Once these are passed, a six-year lead-in time for restricting leave-on cosmetic products has been recommended to allow time for product reformulation.
The Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government requested that I also consider legislation to prohibit the impact of secondary microplastics polluting the natural environment. Given that secondary microplastics are created by the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic, this would be an extremely complex and difficult task. However, we are researching and developing measures nationally, with the EU and under OSPAR to reduce the amount of secondary microplastics entering the environment.
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, sunscreen products and materials being used to research offences set out in section 2. 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, imprisonment or both of persons found guilty of an offence.
Section 8 provides that the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, 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.
Appropriate technical definitions of "microplastic", "microbead", "cosmetics" and "plastic" are central to the success of this legislation. This Bill incorporates definitions that are robust, enforceable, future-proofed and in line with current scientific research. As per the joint committee's recommendations that industry be notified of legislative changes in good time, industry representatives were specifically consulted regarding these provisions. As requested by the joint Oireachtas committee, my officials reviewed the decision to provide a specific exemption to sun-screening products. They wrote to the Health Products Regulatory Authority, HPRA, seeking assurances. However, the HPRA was unable guarantee that no sun-screening products containing plastic microbeads exist. Thus, it is expedient to retain this exemption for the time being.
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 is proposed that a person summarily convicted would receive a class A fine, a prison sentence of up to six months or both. Conviction on indictment may mean a fine of up to €3 million, 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 the 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 - the plastics strategy. 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 and, indeed, many Irish cosmetic manufacturers already focus on producing products with natural ingredients. Nor is the proposed prohibition expected to have much impact on consumer choice. Products without plastic microbeads are already widely available and preferred by consumers.
As has been highlighted in previous Oireachtas debates, the Bill has implications for the principle of free movement under the provisions of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. Ireland has to obtain a derogation from the EU before final enactment of this legislation. We will seek to justify this on environmental grounds under Article 36 of the treaty, arguing that plastic microbeads may cause harm to the environment and citing the precautionary principle. Ireland will need to submit a justification document containing scientific evidence along with the derogation request. To support this, my Department engaged Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT, to draw up a paper on the potential impact of microplastics on the environment, focusing on Ireland. GMIT is an acknowledged centre of excellence in this area.
A minimum three-month standstill period applies from the date the derogation request is submitted. This may be extended further by an additional three months if concerns are expressed by the Commission or a member state. The Bill may need to be amended on Committee Stage or Report Stage in order to take on board amendments required by the EU arising from this process. It should be noted that once the derogation request is submitted to the EU, any Oireachtas amendments that affect the Single Market will mean that a resubmission will be required. This could significantly delay the Bill. A request for a World Trade Organization exemption must be submitted once the EU derogation process has been completed.
In light of internal advice, the responses to the second public consultation and the recommendations from the joint committee, the following changes were made since the publication of the general scheme. The Bill now defines microbeads as "plastic particles" rather than as being made of "polymers". A definition of "plastic" has also been added to the Bill.
The prison term for convictions on indictment has been increased from two years to five on the advice of the Parliamentary Counsel. Fixed charge notices in lieu of summary offences and compliance notices have been removed from the Bill on the basis of non-constitutionality.
I again thank my colleagues in this House, the Seanad and the joint committee for supporting the principle behind this legislation. The Bill is an important measure to reduce the levels of microplastic pollution generated in Ireland. 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 societal response. However, 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 am hopeful that this will translate into further support for future measures that we have to undertake.