Shipbreaking bad: Inside the murky world of ship recycling
Unregulated ship recycling in South Asia is killing dozens of workers a year, with European ships flouting safe disposal laws through loopholes. Sid Hayns-Worthington takes a look at the murky world of shipbreaking
On a muddy beach near central Chittagong, Bangladesh’s second largest city, workers dressed in shirts and sandals use blowtorches to break apart the skyscraper-sized ships that tower over them. South Asia’s beaches form the epicentre of the shipbreaking industry, where shipyard owners compete to recycle the world’s ships on the cheap – at a high cost to workers and the environment.
Every year, nearly a thousand vessels are dismantled worldwide, with 86 per cent of the world’s tonnage from end-of-life ships sent to scrap yards on the beaches of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. Without a dock or harbour, ships are driven in at high tide and deliberately grounded straight onto the beach (‘beaching’) so workers can salvage the ship’s steel, often without specialist machinery or protection.
“There are many different types of dangers,” says Ingvild Jenssen, Director of the Shipbreaking Platform, a global coalition of NGOs working to ban the unsafe conditions in beaching yards. “One of them is being constantly exposed to toxic fumes when torch-cutting the vessels. The paint will contain heavy metals, which the workers are inhaling. Then the vessels will have asbestos in their structures, then there will be PCB [polychlorinated biphenyl, a highly toxic chlorine compound] from burning cables. All of these result in long-term diseases that they will get twenty years down the line.
“There will also be workers working from great heights that lack protective equipment to stabilise them. There will be uncoordinated cutting of the vessels and larger steel blocks falling on top of workers as well. So you’ll have someone working on sections below another person cutting a section above. Those are, in addition to gas explosions, the more serious accidents that lead to serious incidents and fatalities.”
In November 2016, the worst incident in shipbreaking history occurred when an explosion aboard the oil tanker ACES killed at least 27 workers and injured 58 at a yard near Gadani, Pakistan. Almost exactly a year later, oil residues inside the tanker caught fire again after the Pakistan Department of Environment gave the go-ahead to resume the breaking of the ship.
A 2013 report by the global union IndustriALL on the Gadani yard – actually a ten-kilometre strip of beach divided into 130 shipbreaking plots – found that no protective clothing, goggles, shoes or masks were provided. In addition, it found asbestos taken from ships formed a ‘mountain’ on the beach that children would often play beside.
Yet asbestos is just one of many environmental hazards. The ships being cut in the intertidal range allow toxic chemicals and heavy metals – chromium, lead and mercury are all found in high concentrations – to flow into the land and sea unchecked. “So, if there is an oil spill,” says Jenssen, “it’s very difficult to contain that spill when the tide is going in and out.”
Anti-fouling paints containing copper, which deter organisms from growing on the ship’s hull, can similarly seep into the water.
Jenssen continues: “When you’re torch-cutting a ship in an intertidal zone, where the water will be coming up in a couple of hours, it is impossible to control the paint from the ships contaminating the soil and the sea... The level of pollution is obviously high when you have more than 100 ships that are ramped up on a ten-kilometre stretch of beach.”
The highly polluting process of recycling commercial ships – from gargantuan oil tankers to cruise ships – is big business. In Bangladesh, it is estimated between 22,000 and 36,000 people are employed in shipbreaking, and the re-rolled steel accounts for half of the country’s total steel production.
Local authorities fail to enforce labour and environmental laws, and workers have little success going through labour courts. “The fact that no yard owner has been charged for negligence, for the death of any worker, is a very clear signal that there is a system of impunity for the yard owners,” says Jenssen. “That’s one of the main challenges of this industry. It’s three beaches: Chittagong, Gadani and Alang. At the one in Chittagong the yard owners are connected politically, some of them sit in the local parliament... There is a concerning lack of proper accountability.”
According to Jenssen, the South Asian shipbreaking industry boomed in the 1980s as shipping firms, including some from the UK and Europe, found ways to circumvent environmental and workplace legislation at home. Today, this is done through an intermediary ‘cash-buyer’ who enables the real ship owners to absolve themselves of their legal obligations simply by changing ownership, as well as the ship’s flag to a jurisdiction with poor law enforcement (‘re-flagging’), before selling the ship on to a beaching yard.
The cash-buyer will also provide other services, like renaming the ship and providing false documents to declare a ship toxic-free. “In many ways they [ship owners] are able to distance themselves from direct responsibility from having sold to a beaching facility. So a vessel will change flag, it will change name, even if it is only for the last weeks of its voyage,” says Jenssen.
Cash buyers have been instrumental in allowing ship owners to avoid UN agreements such as the 1992 Basel Convention, which sought to prohibit the export of hazardous waste to developing nations. Then came the 2009 Hong Kong Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships, which attempted to agree international standards for shipbreaking, but didn’t ban the practice of beaching or regulate the disposal of hazardous waste. Nine years on and signatories are still waiting for the agreement to be ratified. However, the failure of the Hong Kong Convention – and mounting pressure from organisations in the Shipbreaking Platform – led the EU to adopt a new Ship Recycling Regulation back in 2013.
Due to come in by the end of 2018, the EU Regulation will provide a list of approved ship recycling facilities for EU ship owners to use, excluding any that use beaching as a method of deconstruction. It will also ban the installation of hazardous materials on ships, like asbestos, and require an inventory of other materials on board. A key policy the Platform is pushing for is a ship deposit return scheme for all ships going through European ports. Its aim is to prevent ship owners from selling their end-of-life vessel to an unscrupulous cash- buyer, a sale which can save the owner a significant amount of money but which often comes with the knowledge that the ship will end up on a beaching yard.
“This is currently what happens and we don’t foresee any change to that practice due to the EU ship recycling legislation. So what we are advocating now is that there should be a financial incentive to ensure proper enforcement of the regulation,” says Jenssen.
“The financial incentive would work a bit like a return scheme. It proposes that ships trading with the EU can only enter an EU port if they’ve purchased a ship recycling licence. It can be purchased on a monthly basis or a yearly basis for vessels that trade a lot within the EU. Throughout the operational life of the vessel, monies would be accumulated and set aside on a ship’s specific account and paid back to the last owner, regardless of the flag or ownership, if that owner opts for a recycling facility that is on the EU list of approved ship recycling facilities.”
The European Commission is cautiously waiting to see if ship owners will choose EU-approved facilities of their own accord. If no progress is made – as the Shipbreaking Platform predicts will happen – then policy-makers will likely propose a legislative amendment in late 2018 or 2019. In the meantime, most of the world’s ships will continue to be dismantled with few safeguards for those working in the yards, and fewer regulations to prevent long-term environmental damage.