Poor Ship-Recycling Practices are Poisoning Asian Beaches

In 2012 more than 1300 ocean-going ships were sold for breaking. Only a minority of these end-of-life vessels were handled in a safe, sustainable manner. About two thirds of the ships were simply run ashore on tidal beaches in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. This article takes a look at how ship recycling can become cleaner and safer.

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The fatal accident on board of the Union Brave, a tanker beached in Alang in India during 2012 is a tragic example of ship disposal malpractise. The vessel belonged to the London-based company Union Maritime, an owner and operator of chemical tankers, which promotes its expertise in ‘clean petroleum products trade’. On 6 October 2012, an explosion shook the ship lying on the tidal flats.

Most probably, explosive gases inside the tanks were not properly detected before the workers started to cut the ship apart.

Since 2007, India requires all imported scrap vessels to carry a ‘Gas Free for Hot Work’ certificate. Either the Union Brave was never tested, or the certificate was not based on proper testing. Six workers died instantly, one more seriously injured man succumbed to his injuries after a long journey to hospital. There are no adequate medical facilities in Alang.

No Safety for Workers

In the South Asian shipbreaking countries, authorities do not strictly enforce existing environmental and safety rules. Only after campaigns by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Europe, North America and South Asia, did the responsible governments start to seek regulation for the yards. Still, the day labourers who cut the ships apart are usually unskilled and often not trained to properly use personal protective equipment (PPE).

With regards to hazardous materials, not enough care is given to the protection of workers’ health and safety. In short, due to the lack of heavy lifting equipment, poor training of workers and foremen, inadequate measures to prevent falls from heights and the disregard for PPEs, accidents and exposure to hazardous substances are a major threat to workers.

Although there is no official documentation of injuries and fatalities in the yards and information is restricted, our local contact in Bangladesh counted at least 22 deaths in 2012, alone in accidents in which workers fell from great heights, were crushed under metal plates or killed in explosions. Taking into consideration that the Chittagong shipbreaking yards in Bangladesh directly employ up to 20,000 workers and that many more workers die in accidents and as a result of occupational diseases, the death toll makes it one of the most dangerous jobs in Bangladesh.

Safety standards vary enormously between the shipbreaking yards in South Asia and ship recycling facilities elsewhere in the world, where adequate PPEs are provided, their use is enforced, workers are trained and their health regularly checked. The situation is better in ship recycling yards in China and Turkey, the two other major destinations for end-of-life vessels. Both countries have prohibited the beaching method and display a higher grade of mechanisation. Working conditions are therefore less dangerous.

Asbestos removal

A major challenge in shipbreaking operations is the removal of asbestos. Asbestos was used widely in shipbuilding and can be found in different parts of the structure on board a ship. Ship recycling experts report that even newly built ships are still not 100% asbestos-free, even if the use of the material is outlawed in ship building. According to the standards of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), workers need to be fully protected with the use of masks and protective respiratory equipment.

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The shipbreaking yards of Chittagong, Bangladesh are among the most dangerous places to work in the country Credit: YPSA 2009

However, in many shipbreaking yards in South Asia, workers remove asbestos with their hands and are only protected with gloves, as we witnessed in Pakistan last December. They are totally unaware of the dangers of asbestos and are unable to distinguish it from other insulation material. As a consequence, they breathe in asbestos fibres, carry them away in their clothes and even into their homes. Studies have shown that high numbers of workers suffer from asbestos-related diseases and respiratory problems.

Doctors in Bangladesh are not trained to recognise asbestos-related diseases. A recent pilot study in Bangladesh has shown that it is nearly impossible to measure the impact of the deadly fibre. Workers are not registered and cannot be found after they have left a yard. There are neither regular health checks nor any other documentation and yard owners were reluctant to cooperate with the medical researchers.

Get Off the Beach!

Shipbreaking should not take place directly on beaches. As long as shipbreaking is practiced on the sandy or muddy beaches, full containment of pollutants and the adequate management of hazardous wastes will not be possible.

Moreover, the beaches prevent the use of heavy lifting gear in order to make work safer and less laborious for the workers. Finally, the beaching method does not allow for adequate emergency response as vehicles cannot reach a vessel stuck in mud or sand.

The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, particularly its guidelines on ship dismantling, has proposed a move away from the beach to stable structures. Nearly all major ship owning countries, as well as the shipbreaking countries in South Asia, have ratified the treaty. However, we do not see any structural change, even if some minor improvements haven been achieved.

There are other cleaner and safer methods for ship recycling. Turkey practices the landing method, where ships are partly pulled ashore and then dismantled both from floating and land-based cranes. Smaller metal pieces are cut down on an impermeable floor in order to avoid the leakage of pollutants into the water and the sediments.

A second method practiced in China is the pier-side method. The vessel is moored along a quay and dismantled by cranes from top to bottom. Once only the lower part of the hull is left, it is torn onto a slipway, which can be closed off from the waterside in order to prevent spills. This method is used by most of the modern yards.

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When ships are broken on muddy beaches it is not possible to fully contain hazardous contaminants Credit: Maro Kouri 2010

Finally, there is the possibility to use a dry dock for ship recycling. Some Chinese and British facilities use this method, which is the safest and cleanest. However, ship owners mainly choose the most lucrative methods in order to retrieve the biggest possible profit from the sale of their end-of-life vessel – beaching.

Why ships are hazardous

The ships’ structures contain toxic materials such as asbestos, heavy metals, organotins, 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), dioxins and furans. A lot of these hazardous substances can be released into the environment, contaminating seawater, sediments and the air.

A 2010 World Bank report titled “The Ship Breaking and Recycling Industry in Bangladesh and Pakistan” described widespread soil contamination in Bangladesh and Pakistan with deposits of cadmium, chromium, lead, and mercury. Asbestos especially would remain a significant long-term problem and PCBs would still occur in older vessels and naval vessels, the report argued. It found that heavy metals in paints pollute the work environment and that large volumes of oil and oily water should be properly managed.

Apart from contamination, shipbreaking causes further environmental damage. In Bangladesh, 10,000 mangrove trees – planted with the help of the international community to protect the coast from cyclones – were cut down illegally to make space for the yards. Studies have shown that biodiversity has decreased sharply along the Chittagong coast in Bangladesh, risking the livelihoods of fishermen.

Moreover, researchers estimate that Bangladesh would accumulate millions of tonnes of hazardous waste from shipbreaking between 2010 and 2013, including 79,000 tonnes of asbestos, 240,000 tonnes of PCBs, mainly from cables, 210,000 tonnes of ozone-depleting substances, 69,200 tonnes of paints containing heavy metals, TBT and PCBs, 678 tonnes of heavy metals, nearly two million cubic meters of liquid organic waste and a million tonnes of other hazardous wastes.

International Waste Law

In international environmental law, especially under the waste law regime of the Basel Convention, end-of-life vessels are considered hazardous waste. Their transboundary movement therefore falls under the obligation of Prior Informed Consent (PIC) and should be reduced between developed and developing countries.

The European Union has even transposed the Basel Ban Amendment, which prohibits any export to developing countries, into community law. As a consequence, no end-of-life vessels from Europe should reach a beach in South Asia. However, shipowners circumvent the law by not informing authorities about their intent to sell a vessel, but handing it over once they are outside the EU or on the high seas.

In some cases, even if ships are directly exported from an EU port, the responsible authorities do not intervene to stop the export.

As the Basel Convention and law derived from it, is regularly circumvented by ship owners, the state parties to the Convention asked the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to develop a new international treaty focussing on ship recycling. States adopted the Hong Kong Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships in 2009, which will be a legally binding treaty. The IMO has developed further guidance, such as the 2012 Guidelines for ship recycling facilities.

However, the Convention has not yet entered into force, as it has not been ratified by the required number of States, and will most probably not do so in the next decade. Therefore, the Convention does little to change the situation in a reasonable time span. Even worse, ship owners have found a fig leaf to hide behind.

Impotent EU Regulators

Despite international law, most end-of-life vessels still end up in substandard facilities. The EU has long recognised its responsibility to contribute to change. Former Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas announced in April 2006 that the EU had an important role to play in finding solutions for responsible ship recycling. The European Commission (EC) published a promising Green Paper and a Strategy and the European Parliament urged the Commission to act.

In March 2012, the EC finally published a proposal for a new regulation on ship recycling. The regulation seeks to implement the Hong Kong Convention and to add several higher standards for EU-flagged vessels. Recycling facilities that intend to take in EU-flagged vessels have to be listed by the EU as being compliant. The Shipbreaking Platform sharply criticised the draft as it did not introduce any economic incentive to choose responsible ship recycling. Without any financial mechanism, the regulation will have little impact.

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Day labourers who cut the ships apart are usually unskilled and often not trained to properly use personal protective equipment Credit YPSA 2009

The proposed ship recycling fund, introduced by the European Parliament’s rapporteur on the issue, Carl Schlyter offered the potential to address this situation. However, despite a clear majority in the Environment Committee, the Parliament voted down the fund in plenary after heavy lobbying both from the shipowners associations and EU ports.

Instead of including the mechanism in the regulation, the Parliament asked the Commission to develop a model to internalise costs for clean and safe ship recycling. That is, there will be further delays of many years.

The regulation will only put obligations on EU-flagged ships – a small percentage of all EU-owned ships as most ships fly flags of convenience (FOC) during their last voyage. NGOs are afraid that the regulation will be a further invitation for ship owners to use FOCs.

An economic incentive for real change

NGOs have been promoting a mandatory economic incentive for clean and safe ship recycling for years to internalise the costs, to discourage the reflagging of end-of-life vessels to avoid European regulations and to implement an individual ship owner responsibility scheme which encourages green ship design.

The ‘Polluter-Pays Principle’ or cost internalisation is at the core of environmental policies on waste management of the EU, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Under a financial mechanism the costs of proper management of hazardous wastes will be borne by those profiting from ships during their lifecycle instead of externalising them to vulnerable countries. Even if the EU needs to take further measures to prevent the out-flagging of European-owned ships, a financial mechanism covering all ships calling at EU ports would discourage re-flagging.

The polluter pays principle should not be seen as a ‘polluter pollutes and then pays to pollute principle’. In this case, the pollution stems from the original decisions to produce ships using toxic materials. Therefore, an effective solution needs a driver to prevent the use of hazardous materials in new ship design or for those ships already made, a driver to have them pre-cleaned during their useful life.

While the Hong Kong Convention in its Preamble cites the Substitution Principle, which requires alternatives to hazardous substances to be used where possible, the Convention contains no actual measures to implement this. If financial burdens are decreased for ships containing less hazardous materials and for those that are designed for ease of recycling, it would drive green design and pre-cleaning.

A study published in January 2013 by the Dutch economic consultancy Profundo argued that different models for such a mechanism were economically and legally feasible.

The ship recycling fund

The European Parliament has mainly discussed the model of a ship recycling fund. All ships calling at EU ports would need to pay a fee into the fund, which would then disburse premiums for safe and sound ship recycling in carefully vetted EU-listed facilities. This should eliminate the price gap where ship owners obtain the highest prices for their end-of-life ships. The model also foresaw annual fees for ships with regular port calls such as ferries.

The Parliament commissioned an impact assessment, which indicated that a levy on all ships calling at EU ports, had the potential to meet the three objectives. The assessment estimated that a fund would need to pay between €20 and €50 per light displacement tonne to cover the price gap for safe recycling and that the levy on ships calling at EU ports to support such a fund would need to be in a range of €0.01 to €0.025 per gross tonne.

It concluded that the levy would have a very limited impact on the price of goods. As European lawmakers were afraid to implement such a mechanism, and were strongly pressurised by the maritime sector to vote the idea down, all eyes are now on the European Commission, which has been tasked with developing a more detailed model for a financial mechanism to enable the clean and safe recycling of ships.


Author - Patrizia Heidegger, Shipbreaking Platform Patrizia Heidegger is the executive director of Shipbreaking Platform, a global coalition of 18 environmental, human and labour rights organisations. The NGO Shipbreaking Platform seeks to prevent shipbreaking on tidal beaches and promotes clean and safe ship recycling.

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