Viissi with NGO Shipbreaking Platform, Brussels
Every year around a thousand commercial ocean ships reach the end of their service life and are broken down to recover steel. Only a fraction of end-of-life vessels is handled in a safe, sustainable manner. More than 70% of all end-of-life ships are simply run ashore on the tidal beaches of Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, where unscrupulous shipbreaking companies exploit minimal enforcement of environmental and safety rules to maximize profits.
INTRODUCING SHIP BREAKING
In the last decades, the international community has witnessed significant changes in the world economy. For the sake of satisfying the emerging needs of both humans and the planet, ground-breaking technologies have been developed, innovative ways of conducting business have emerged, new industrial sectors have come into light. Within this intricate scenario, a peculiar industry plays a remarkable role: the ship breaking industry.
Vessels are the most important viaduct of imports and exports, contributing to the development of international trade and commerce. As with every means of transportation, ships reach, after an average life of thirty years, a point of no return. Interestingly, while in the past the steel skeletons of ships were dismantled mainly in Europe and United States, the situation has drastically changed in the last twenty-five years. Within the Western part of the world, laws and regulations regarding social and environmental protection have become stricter, due to an increase of collective responsiveness. As a consequence, the business of ship scrapping has shifted to areas where legal frameworks are softer, reaching countries that now control almost the whole ship recycling market.
Every year around a thousand ocean-going commercial ships reach the end of their service life and are broken down to recover steel. Almost every part of the vessels including the machinery, equipment, and furniture can be re-used. As a result, ship recycling is a necessary process to ensure that valuable resources can be used again.
Yet, the dismantling process has been strongly criticized. Only a fraction of end-of-life vessels is handled in a safe, sustainable manner. More than 70% of all end-of-life ships are simply run ashore on the tidal beaches of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, where shipbreaking companies exploit minimal enforcement of environmental and safety rules to maximize profits. But the remaining 30% also remain an issue – ship recycling facilities in Turkey and China still face difficulties in complying with all standards of environmentally sound management of hazardous waste.
On the beaches of South Asia, poor and unskilled migrant workers are deployed by the thousands to break down the ships manually. In Bangladesh, children under 18 years of age count for 20% of the workforce. There and elsewhere, because the muddy sand and shifting grounds of tidal beaches cannot support heavy lifting equipment or safety gear, accidents injure or kill workers each year. Causes of death at the shipbreaking yards in South Asia do not include only extremely heavy steel beams and plates that fall and crush workers under their weight, but also explosions, fire, and suffocation.
The ships are full of toxins. Since little care is given to worker safety during the cutting and cleaning operations, the constant exposure to toxic materials and fumes is the source of many diseases, including cancer. Asbestos dust, lead, organotins, such as the extremely toxic organic tin compound tributyltin (TBT) used in anti-fouling paints, polychlorinated organic compounds (PCBs), by-products of combustion such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and dioxins and furans, and other harmful substances are found both on the yards and in the workers’ sleeping quarters located close by.
The shipbreaking business has a tremendous impact on the environment. Miles of protected mangrove trees, essential to ecosystem health and protection from monsoons, are being cut to make way for ships. The toxic wastes ravage coastal ecosystems. Dozens of aquatic species have been killed, destroying the livelihoods of surrounding fishing communities. A lot of oil residues, for example, are being spilled and mixed with the seawater, causing serious damage by reducing light intensity beneath the water surface. Pollutants affect the growth of marine biodiversity and alter permanently the physiochemical properties of the coastal habitat. Moreover, the scraps from the ships, stacked on the seashore, contribute to the accumulation of rust and metal remnants in the soil, which is daily losing its properties.
It can be stated that exploitation and economic dumping characterize the shipbreaking industry mostly benefitting ship-owning companies based in industrialized countries. The considerable profits made by the sector are not being used to improve working conditions or to protect the coastal environment and local communities from pollution. Ship owners currently benefit from the exploitation of workers and the weak enforcement of environmental regulations in South Asia to get rid of their end-of-life vessels in the most profitable way. By selling their ships to substandard dismantling yards, they are prioritizing high scrap prices at the detriment of human lives and the environment. The shipping industry is in most cases not being held accountable for the negative impacts caused. It is extremely easy for a ship owner to circumvent existing laws that aim at protecting developing countries from the dumping of toxic wastes.
Prompt and sustained actions are required in order to ensure safe and sound ship recycling. Numerous issues need to be tackled by policy makers in ship-owning states, in particular the European Union and its Member States, as well as other shipping hubs such as Japan or the US, by Governments in the shipbreaking countries, by ship owners and their associations, ship financers including bank and pension funds as well as the producers of consumer goods shipping their cargo around the world. Stay tuned for our next posts, which will touch upon the concept of a ‘ship recycling license’ in the EU to implement the polluter pays principle, the role of cash buyers in the ship recycling industry, and green washing attempts in the beaching yards of India and Bangladesh.
Stay tuned for our next posts, which, inter alia, will touch upon the concept of a ‘ship recycling license’ in the EU to implement the polluter pays principle, the role of cash buyers in the ship recycling industry, and green washing attempts in the beaching yards of India and Bangladesh. Therefore, in this blog series, several points in question will be discussed chronologically in order to provide a more thorough account of what is actually taking place and what should be done to improve the current situation.
Nicola Mulinaris is a graduate from the Master Programme in Law at the University of Udine and the LL.M. in International Economic and Business Law at the University of Groningen. His background also consists of experiences in social media marketing and photography. Currently, he works as Communication and Policy Officer for the NGO Shipbreaking Platform in Brussels, where he has developed a keen interest in issues related to the environment and human rights, specifically linked to the shipping sector.
Photo: © Maro Kouri
Demaria, F., Shipbreaking at Alang–Sosiya (India): An ecological distribution conflict, EcologicalEconomics (70) 2010.
Puthucherril, T. G., From Shipbreaking to Sustainable Ship Recycling: Evolution of a Legal Regime, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, The Netherlands, 2010.
Alam, S., Faruque A., Legal regulation of the shipbreaking industry in Bangladesh: The international regulatory framework and domestic implementation challenges, Marine Policy (47) Elsevier Ltd 2014.