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Ireland could be next to ban microbeads (if politicians can agree on it)

The Green Party has published a bill on the issue – but it needs cross-party support.

Image: Shutterstock/Steve Cordory

THEY’VE BEEN BANNED in a number of countries, and now it looks like microbeads are set for the chopping block in Ireland – if the Dáil agrees to pass a new bill tabled by the Green Party.

The tiny plastic beads, present in many cosmetic products, are not biodegradable and can affect marine life.

What are microbeads?

  • Microbeads are tiny balls of plastic – smaller than 5mm but usually between 0.0004-1.24 mm wide – which are most common in soaps, shower gels and facial scrubs, used to exfoliate your skin. They are also found in some toothpastes and abrasive cleaners.

Back in 2014, An Taisce called for a “quick phase out” of microbeads, saying that the beads are absorbed or eaten by sea creatures and could potentially be absorbed by humans.

They also contribute to the so-called ‘plastic soup’ that has accumulated in the world’s oceans.

The Pacific Ocean, for example, is home to a patch of rubbish made of plastic, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Plastic debris is capable of being broken down into tiny particles which might be ingested by sea animals and birds.

Source: National Science Foundation/YouTube

A site called Beat the Microbead outlines the types of products that contain microbeads.

It notes that Unilever announced in 2012 that all of its products worldwide would be plastic-free by 2015, that Proctor and Gamble said it would be microbead-free by 2017, and that Johnson and Johnson has already started phasing out microbeads. A list of other companies that have pledged to get rid of microbeads can be found here.

Climate Change Minister Denis Naughten said on Morning Ireland that he is aware the EU has been discussing tackling the issue of microbeads.

It’s a huge and growing problem, not just in this country but internationally.
The EU is also looking at this issue. I think there is a role for the EU in relation to this but in Ireland as well, to look at banning microbeads getting into our water systems because they’re having a huge impact in relation to our fish stocks, and in relation to our clean water standards.

He made the comments as he was on his way to speak with other climate ministers from OECD countries this week.

British MPs recently said that a worldwide ban of microbeads in cosmetics should be enforced as soon as possible. The chair of Britain’s Environmental Audit Committee, Mary Creagh, told the BBC that a single shower can result in 100,000 plastic particles entering the ocean.

Plans to ban

The Department for Housing, Planning and Local Government said last month that Ireland supports “the principle of banning of microbeads”. It also said that a timeframe is needed before a blanket ban is introduced so that the “industry has time to adapt”.

However, the Green Party published legislation this week to ban microbeads, called the Micro-Plastic and Micro-Bead Pollution Prevention Bill 2016.

The bill would prohibit the manufacture and sale of products containing microbeads and the addition of microbeads to cosmetics, soaps or similar products.

It would also create an offence of sale or manufacture of such products and provides for a fine on prosecution of up to €10,000 for each item for sale, sold, or manufactured.

Under the legislation, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would be responsible for monitoring the levels of microbeads in Irish waters.

Green Party Senator Grace O’Sullivan said that the bill is on its way as the party is concerned about the long-term public health implications of micro-beads.

“The US has already banned them, the UK are beginning a process to do so, and even Cosmetics Europe, the industry lobby in the EU, have recommended they be phased out,” she pointed out.

“We’ve had legislation ready on banning micro-beads for a while, and we’re publishing it in light of Minister Naughten’s comments. We welcome that the Government are considering such a ban.”

She added:

There are a huge amount of products, such as facial scrubs, soaps, and toothpaste that contain thousands of plastic microbeads. These are flushed down drains and make their way into the environment. Many of these microbeads are too small to be filtered out during ordinary wastewater treatment, and end up in our rivers, lakes and seas.
These beads are then ingested by fish and other marine organisms. Once ingested, these micro-beads attract other pollutants, many of which are recognised to have serious impacts on human health. These toxins accumulate in fish, and can be passed on to humans who eat them.

Senator O’Sullivan said that the party is sure there will be cross-party support on this bill.

Microbeads and water

Ervia said that microbeads would most likely end up in surface water after going down the plughole, but “it is likely there would be considerable removal of these beads during the settlement process in typical wastewater treatment plants”.

“Any concentration of microbeads that do enter a surface water course and are abstracted into drinking water treatment process, would be subjected to coagulation, flocculation and filtration processes which would most likely remove any remaining concentration of microbeads to trace levels.”

Ireland is working with European partner countries under the Oslo-Paris Convention (OSPAR) on studying the effectiveness of wastewater treatment plants and storm drainage in removing plastics.

The country is also undertaking national research on the effectiveness of indigenous urban wastewater facilities in removal of these materials.

The Department of Environment said that “it is considered that unilateral action by individual countries may have a limited effect in this area and that a coordinated approach is required”.

Consequently, The Marine Strategy Framework Directive is the overarching legislative context that covers marine litter in the European context. Also in the international domain, research undertaken under OSPAR on micro plastics will form the basis for future developments on the issue of removal of the microbeads from products.

It added that it is envisaged that a full consultation process would be undertaken, including key stakeholders in the environmental science, public health and industrial sectors as well as the general public.

Read: Britain wants a global ban on microbeads – so what’s Ireland going to do about it?>

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