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Environmental Protection (Microbeads) (England) Regulations 2017

Volume 787: debated on Monday 18 December 2017

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 27 November be approved.

Relevant document: 13th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, it is a privilege to introduce these regulations. Microbeads are small plastic particles which have been added to many personal care products. One shower alone can send 100,000 microbeads into the water system and subsequently into our seas and the habitats of the marine animals that live there.

Most significantly, once released into the environment, it is impossible to recover microbeads or remedy the effects that could subsequently emerge. These regulations will ban the manufacture and sale of rinse-off personal care products containing plastic microbeads. The range of personal care products that can contain plastic microbeads is considerable, from products such as shower gels, face scrubs and toothpaste to hand-cleaning products such as Swarfega. Subject to your Lordships’ consent and a positive outcome in the other place later today, these regulations will be signed tomorrow and 21 days from that point of signature the manufacture in England of any rinse-off personal care product which uses microbeads as an ingredient will be banned. Six months from that point, a further ban will come into place to prevent the sale of any rinse-off personal care product containing microbeads. Crucially, this means that those products will neither be able to be imported and sold here nor able to be exported.

We know that there are various sources of plastic entering our seas and oceans due to human behaviour. Recent estimates suggest that up to 12.2 million tonnes of plastic are entering the global ocean every year and 80% of the plastic that is in the ocean has come from land-based actions. Furthermore, it is estimated that personal care products containing microbeads contribute 35,000 tonnes of plastic into the global oceans each year. Put simply, this cannot go on and our generation must act. We have a responsibility as individuals and as a Government not to shirk the global challenge of marine pollution. We must act together to stop this pollution at source and there is no time to lose. Anyone who disputes this should be prescribed a course of “Blue Planet II”.

The regulations before your Lordships help us take a step forward. This will reduce the unnecessary release of plastic into the marine environment and lessen harm to marine organisms caused by this form of microplastic. We have been working closely with the devolved Administrations. Very few cosmetics and personal products are manufactured in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. The ban on both manufacture and sale of microbeads will come into effect on the same day there as the English ban, which is likely to be 9 July. I hope your Lordships will accept the need for these regulations and that the need is pressing. The approach here is another strong example of the continuing role that the UK has taken to protect the marine environment, not just not around our coastline but throughout the world, including our overseas territories. This legislation will deliver one of the strongest, if not the strongest, bans on microbeads in the world. There is clearly much more work to be done, both at home and internationally, on marine litter and pollution and the protection of our seas and oceans.

Evidence concerning microplastics has provided us with information about the potential environmental impacts of microbeads. Ingestion of microplastics by some marine organisms can reduce digestion of food and adversely affect reproduction. They can also be passed along marine food chains. In addition, we know from current evidence, some funded by Defra but also available from other sources, that chemical pollutants can leach from and attach to microplastics, with the potential that these could increase exposure levels of toxins when ingested by marine organisms. Microplastics themselves may also contain potentially harmful chemicals.

I recognise the efforts that industry has taken to address the problem of microbeads. A number of manufacturers and retailers have already stopped using microbeads in their products or have committed to do so, but we have now reached a stage where we have to take more decisive action. Natural alternatives for microbeads do exist. These are readily available and, indeed, were used successfully in personal care products before plastic microbeads were introduced. The approach we have taken is based on clear evidence and as a result has the support of a wide range of stakeholders. Our action on microbeads is a further demonstration of our commitment to address marine litter and protect our seas and oceans. This is an important measure. Marine pollution is no respecter of boundaries and we must work collaboratively, but today we have a particular opportunity for our country to send out the strongest of signals. I beg to move.

My Lords, I am delighted to welcome these regulations to ban the production of microbeads in water-soluble cosmetics. I agree with absolutely everything that the Minister said. I declare an interest as a district councillor; it will become clear why later on.

As the Minister said, there are other suitable non-plastic alternatives available to the cosmetics industry. Around 72% of manufacturers have already switched from plastic microbeads to other, more sustainable alternatives, but this leaves 28% of UK cosmetics manufacturers to fall into line. At the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017 there was an extensive public consultation, which supported the ban on microbeads. As the Minister said, currently that applies only in England but it is expected to be extended to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in July next year. The cost of the ban is approximately £500,000. This is clearly a manageable sum for the largest cosmetics manufacturers. Smaller, local manufacturers do not use microbeads and so are unaffected by this legislation.

As the Minister said, these microbeads are small plastic particles which move through the sewage system and out into the sea, where they are consumed by marine life, sometimes adversely affecting digestive systems. The impact assessment states:

“There is little evidence of the impact to human health”,

although the Department of Health is conducting a review. Fish digestive systems, where microplastics are likely to get caught, are usually removed when preparing fish for human consumption. This is a personal warning to me as I am a great fan of sprats, which I eat whole. Perhaps I will have to change my eating habits.

That apart, my only real concern relates to the enforcement of the regulations surrounding the ban. This is to be allocated to local authorities. As most noble Lords are aware, local authorities have had their budgets cut drastically and are finding it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to make their income stretch over the services they deliver. To add another burden to them could mean that the regulations are not properly enforced—not because local authorities would not wish to do it but because they simply may not have the money to carry out the function effectively. I flag this up to the Minister and seek reassurance.

Regulation 2 relates to who will be enforcing the regulations. Sub-paragraph (d) states that this will be,

“in relation to an area in the rest of England, the county council for that area or, where there is no county council for that area, the district council for that area”.

So is it only county and district councils which will be carrying out the enforcement in most of England? In sub-paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) there is no mention of metropolitan areas apart from London or of unitary authorities. Is this an unfortunate omission? Are these areas excluded? Have I missed something? I would be grateful to the Minister for some clarification.

That apart, I am absolutely delighted to support these regulations, and thank the Minister for his very helpful briefing. I very much look forward to further bans on the unnecessary use of plastics, which the Secretary of State announced this morning.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his clarity in introducing this secondary legislation, and for discussing some of the issues arising from it in advance of today’s consideration. If I could take a small amount of credit for the fact that this SI is before us today, I think I was the first person to raise the issue of microbeads in your Lordships’ House several years ago. I can still remember the look of growing dismay on the faces of noble Lords in the Chamber, who realised for the first time that this plastic was not just an environmental issue, it was actually getting into the food chain and potentially contaminating their fish supper.

Since then, awareness of the dangers of microbeads has risen significantly and the more the public have become aware of them, the stronger the call for microbeads to be banned. The latest polling shows that some 85% of people want action to stop plastics polluting the oceans. As well as concerns being raised on a cross-party basis, both here and in the Commons, there have been some very effective campaigns by Greenpeace, the Marine Conservation Society and other NGOs. As has been said, the wonderful work of David Attenborough and the “Blue Planet” series has also helped to harden attitudes against the wider contamination of the sea by plastics.

It is also clear that microbeads and microplastics represent a particular challenge because apart from the health implications in the food chain, which, as has been said, are still being analysed, once those microbeads are washed into our oceans that is irreversible. It is hard to imagine how they can be cleaned up in the future, so we welcome this initiative by the Government in taking a first step to clean up our oceans by banning microbeads in cosmetics and toiletries. The evidence and science are there to back the initiative up, while it can be delivered without human detriment and with considerable public and business support.

It is fairly obvious that microbeads are not an essential ingredient in personal care products. We clearly managed without them in the past and, as has been said, many companies are already using natural alternatives such as ground almonds or apricot kernels to replace microbeads. As the Minister said, there has already been a voluntary ban by a number of cosmetics producers, so this proposal will create a level playing field and consistency across business. There have also been successful initiatives to take action on microbeads in other countries, notably the US and France. However, as he said, the framing of this proposal in the UK will potentially deliver the widest ban in the world, incorporating both the manufacture and sale of goods with microbeads. We obviously welcome that status.

Having said all this, I would like to put a few questions to the Minister. First, these proposals cover only rinse-off personal care products, not products which remain on the skin. Can the Minister explain the differentiation between those two categories of toiletries and what further consideration is being given to a wider ban? Secondly, it has been suggested that microbeads in personal care products represent only one-fifth of total use, with the remainder used in industrial cleaning products. Can he clarify what the actual proportions are and what steps are being taken to find alternatives to microbeads in other sectors, so that a complete ban can be introduced? Thirdly, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, has just pointed out, the ban will be only as good as the enforcement measures put in place. The legislation envisages local authorities, specifically trading standards officers, enforcing the ban. What training and guidance will be given to these officers? Does the Minister think that they will have the resources to police the microbead ban, given the pressures already on the service and the cuts they have endured?

It seems that the real challenge will be in policing not the household names, many of which are already taking action, but the small niche companies and cosmetics imported from overseas. In this regard, the Commons Environmental Audit Committee drew specific attention to the problem of labelling. It is currently impossible to tell from packaging whether a product contains microbeads. If the ban is to be upheld by enforcement bodies, they will need greater clarity on what cosmetic products contain without having to resort to chemical analysis. Can the Minister clarify whether any further thought is being given to product labelling, which would help consumers and enforcement agencies alike? Finally, as he acknowledged, plastics in the oceans do not respect borders. A ban in this country will have a marginal effect unless other countries follow suit. What steps are the Government taking to persuade the EU and other global nations to take this issue seriously and follow our lead?

These reforms are welcome but we have to be realistic about what they will achieve. Microbeads are a small proportion of the microplastic problem and, literally, a drop in the ocean compared to the wider plastic contamination of them. I hope the Minister can reassure the House that this small beginning is a symbol of a larger determination by this Government to take a global lead in preventing further plastic pollution and clean up our oceans for the next generation.

My Lords, I intervene briefly to warmly welcome the statement by the Minister. This issue demands urgent attention, and I am glad to see the Government doing this. I have a couple of brief questions. First, with regard to the delay in implementing equivalent steps by the devolved regimes, will he confirm that this is not because of any lack of enthusiasm but is a question of process and that some other steps to this end are being considered by the devolved regimes? Secondly, will he confirm that there is no question of allowing the import of products containing microbeads, particularly from the United States, and that the Government will withstand this with all the means they can?

My Lords, I am most grateful for the contributions that have been made because they symbolise the fact that when there is an environmental imperative, very little else matters and unity of purpose is important. I am most grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Whitchurch and Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, for their endorsement of these proposals.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, the reason for the slight difference is purely that, I understand, there are hardly any manufacturers of cosmetics in the three other countries of the United Kingdom. Therefore, it will be brought together with everything in July. I certainly do not want to suggest that there is any sense of delay. There is unity of purpose across the United Kingdom. These regulations are about manufacture, sale, import and export. We are going to have a very robust regime in this country. Potentially New Zealand might have the strongest regime—there is a slight argument about that—but we intend to have the strongest ban that we can.

A number of points were made. The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, raised the issue of local authorities. I am looking at the interpretation and I will want to look at it fully because there is no intention of leaving any body out of this. I note the references to the City of London, the rest of London, the council of the Isles of Scilly and, where there is no county council, the district council. I am very confident that this would be a shire county or a metropolitan district, but I will clarify that because there is no intention of being lax about any part of the country on this point.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, made a number of points. At this stage we think that there is a distinction between run-off and leave-on products, because leave-on products tend to be removed in other ways and disposed of in bins and other receptacles which we believe lessens their chance of ending up in the marine environment. However, we have asked the Advisory Committee on Hazardous Substances to look at other sources of microplastic, including industrial cleaning products, with regard to their potential to harm the marine environment. As soon as we have had that, we will know more. Our assessments have indicated that industrial cleaning products used and manufactured in the UK contain a small number of microbeads, but I do not want to discount that. We will be asking the advisory committee to look at that thoroughly.

On the question of training and guidance for trading standards officers, which both noble Baronesses raised, it is essential that we ensure that people who will be asked to do this job are well trained. Officials in Defra have worked closely with local authority trading standards bodies to develop a guidance document for enforcement officers to use. This document contains information about likely products and ingredients that we have gathered from cosmetics associations and experienced trading standards officers to help surveillance.

The document also sets out a series of tests which officers may conduct to help them determine whether or not a product contains microbeads. Officials met a large number of trading standards officers who work at borders around the UK, who informed us that they will be able to inspect products for microbeads alongside the safety testing they already do. We have also committed initial funds of over £100,000 to support the potential increased burden on the Ministry of Justice.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, also asked about labelling. These regulations will ban the manufacture, sale, import and export of all products in this category. We are confident that the ban will stop the use of microbeads in personal care products, and therefore that a new law on labelling will not be necessary. However, we will of course continue to consider these matters because, again, we genuinely want to make progress on ensuring that our oceans and seas are in a better condition.

As I and other noble Lords have mentioned, this whole area needs to be dealt with in collaboration internationally, with the EU and other nations. The importance of the environment is consistently discussed at the international fora in which this country participates—whether it is the G7, the G20 or the UN. We have ensured that at recent meetings, especially at the UN Environment Assembly, we were clear on the reasons for our ban and that we support action to improve our oceans. Fortunately, many other countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and France are already working on similar bans. Although not all are as strong as ours, the majority of them will come into effect in July this year. The EU is currently considering its position, and other countries such as India are looking to make similar legislative changes. Of course, we will make sure that we use future events to get our message across and show leadership in this area.

I sense the importance to your Lordships of the global lead that we surely must take in terms of further plastic pollution and cleaning up our oceans for the next generation. This country has a long tradition of taking action regarding caring for the marine environment. More recently, this legislation has taken 15 months of hard work. I believe that the success on plastic bags is remarkable, with the reduction in the number of plastic bags found on beaches and the marine environment. We have just finished consultation on a potential deposit return scheme, and we are on track to establish more marine protected areas. We are also looking at how we can increase recycling and decrease the reliance on plastics in our everyday lives.

It is clear that there is much more to be done to tackle the issue of marine pollution. It is a problem that we must not and cannot shy away from. Reducing marine litter at the source will be key to beginning the work towards improving ocean health. The action proposed through this legislation shows that the United Kingdom is determined to face the issue of marine litter head-on by reducing the flow of plastic litter into the oceans. For these reasons, I beg to move.

Motion agreed.