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Micro-beads: 'There will be more waste plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050'

The government has made many promises, so where is the Oceans Bill, ask Aengus Ó Corráin and Grace O’Sullivan.

Aengus Ó Corráin and Grace O'Sullivan Green Party

ONE YEAR AGO this week, the Green Party introduced the Micro-plastic and Micro-bead Pollution Prevention Bill 2016 into the Seanad. The aim of this legislation was to address the growing problem of micro-plastic pollution in our oceans and rivers.

Despite stated support for the principle from Minister Simon Coveney, the government, together with Fianna Fáil, voted the bill down. Speaking against it, the minister promised action on micro-beads within a year, together with a new regime to set up a number of much needed Marine Protected Areas (“MPAs”).

Well, it’s a year on, and there’s no sign of either.

Contaminated drinking water

Micro-plastic pollution is a serious problem. A study conducted by Orb Media this year found that 83% of drinking water supplies in the countries tested, including Ireland, the UK, the US, India, Germany, and France, were contaminated. In June 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency published a report that found that exposure to micro-plastics in drinking water, and food prepared with contaminated water, poses a risk to the health of the population and to wildlife.

The evidence against micro-plastics is mounting. Several other countries have already banned or are banning micro-beads, including France, the UK, the US, and Canada.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation report in 2016 warned that if current trends continue, there will be more waste plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050. We’ve all seen the photographs of rivers, beaches and oceans teeming with plastic, but it’s impossible to see the smaller particles that are making their way into marine food chains. This problem is compounded because large pieces of plastic degrade into micro-plastics over time.

Introducing concept into Irish law

The Green Party bill would have introduced the concept of micro-plastic pollution into Irish law for the first time. It would have banished all products containing micro-beads from our 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 some solutions.

The government claimed a ban was contrary to EU single market rules, but as highlighted during the debate, exceptions to these rules are allowed.

Indeed, Minister Coveney illustrated this himself by writing to EU Environment and Marine Commissioner, Karmenu Vella, to say that Ireland would act on the issue. In reality, any issues with the Bill could easily have been amended during its passage through the Oireachtas, a point Senator O’Sullivan emphasised during the debate.

Progress has stalled

Initially it seemed as if the government was genuine in its commitment to tackling plastic and micro-plastic pollution and, to its credit, they engaged in a public consultation process on the issue in early 2017.

Indeed, Minister Denis Naughten even told his EU 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. A subsequent Labour Party bill to ‘ban the bead’ was allowed to pass the first hurdle in the Dáil and is still being considered.

Yet progress has since stalled. In April, Minister Coveney told a workshop on MPAs that the government was advancing work on a comprehensive ‘Oceans Bill’, (something the Green Party would welcome with enthusiasm) but there is no sign of it on the government’s autumn legislative agenda. 

Broken promises 

As if to underline the government’s lack of commitment to tackling plastic pollution,  Minister Naughten recently sought to oppose the joint Green Party and Labour Party effort to introduce a deposit recycling scheme and a ban on non-recyclable or non-compostable single-use plastics.

Clearly, government statements that protection of the environment from plastic pollution was a priority were empty words, mere lip service to the cause of the environment. The EU has been informed, the public consultation concluded, and many promises made, so where is the Oceans Bill?

Minister, the clock is ticking.

Aengus Ó Corráin BL is a practising barrister, Green Party member, and author of the Micro-plastic and Micro-bead Pollution Prevention Bill 2016. Grace O’Sullivan is a Green Party Senator and member of the Seanad Civil Engagement Group.

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Aengus Ó Corráin and Grace O'Sullivan  / Green Party

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