Law to ban microbeads comes into effect

Published by Niall Sargent on

February 21st, 2020

A new act to ban the manufacture and sale of cosmetics and personal care products containing microbeads entered into law yesterday.

The Microbeads Act 2019 prohibits the manufacture or placing on the market of cosmetics, personal care products, household and industrial cleaning products that contain plastic microbeads.

The Act also bans the import or export of such products and makes it an offence to dispose of substances containing microbeads by pouring it down the drain or into marine or freshwater environments.

Microbeads are tiny pieces of plastic found by the hundreds of thousands in shower gels, face-scrubs and toothpaste. They do not biodegrade and persist for a very long time in the environment, with a half-life of hundreds of years.

There are up to 95,000 particles in one tube of the toothpaste, while microbeads in personal care products and detergents contribute 2,000 to 3,000 tonnes of microplastics per year.

A 2018 study by NUI Galway revealed just how pervasive the microplastics problem is in the marine environment, finding that 73 per cent of deepwater fish they studied having microbeads or microplastics in their bodies.

The Environmental Protection Agency is now responsible for the implementation of the law and enforcement with the assistance of the Gardaí and Customs. A summary offence can lead to a fine and/or a prison sentence of up to six months while conviction on indictment could see a hefty fine of up to €3,000,000 and/ or a prison sentence of up to five years.

The legislation was introduced to the Dáil last June and was passed by the both Houses of the Oireachtas and signed by the President in December 2019.  In the past number of years, however, the Fine Gael-led Government voted down Bills introduced by both Labour and the Green Party that looked to go further than just ban microbeads.

For example, a Bill from Green Party Senator Grace O’Sullivan in 2016 looked to monitor all microplastics in Irish water systems and as well as banning certain microbeads. The then-Minister for Housing Simon Coveney TD blocked the Bill, stating that it failed to include detergents and scouring agents, and did not include sufficient investigative or enforcement powers.

Microplastics in the Azores Photo: Raceforwater
Microplastics in the Azores Photo: Raceforwater

Only small part of the problem

Microbeads are just one form of microplastics, small plastic fragments that originate from the likes of fibres from clothing and fragments from the construction industry and plastic bottle recycling facilities.

According to Dr Anne Marie Mahon, who has carried out research on microplastic pollution in Ireland’s freshwater system, a ban on cosmetic microbeads would only solve a fraction of the microplastics problem.

Speaking before a Dail Committee in 2017, the GMIT researcher warned that microbeads make up only two to three per cent of microplastic found in the environment.

There are also concerns about microplastics found in sewage sludge that is commonly applied as a fertiliser on agricultural land. A 2018 assessment from the European Chemicals Agency indicated that concentrated levels of microplastics are more likely to be found in sewage sludge than in our oceans.

A recent joint report from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Resource Institute (WRI) released this month found that legislation to tackle microplastics is lacking globally.

While 127 countries have adopted some form of legislation to regulate plastic bags, the 2018 report states that only a small number of countries across the world – including Canada, France, and the UK – have imposed a ban on microbeads.

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Niall Sargent

Niall is the Editor of The Green News. He is a multimedia journalist, with an MA in Investigative Journalism from City University, London