Dangerous and Dirty Ship Demolition and Shipbreaking

The NGO Shipbreaking Platform keeps track of these global shipbreaking trends
The NGO Shipbreaking Platform keeps track of these global shipbreaking trends

By Patrizia Heidegger, Executive Director of NGO Shipbreaking Platform

More than 70 percent of the world’s obsolete tonnage ends up polluting the Indian sub-continent and putting workers’ lives at risk. The Report Magazine invited Patrizia Heidegger, Executive Director, NGO Shipbreaking Platform to give an overview of their work. In this thought provoking article, she explains the issues and problems caused by some of the unsafe methods and procedures utilised to break end-of-life ships on tidal beaches.

Every year, more than 1,000 obsolete cargo and container ships, oil and gas tankers, passenger and ro-ro vessels have to be dismantled as they are not economically viable anymore for their owners. The NGO Shipbreaking Platform keeps track of these global shipbreaking trends: in 2014, out of a total of 1026 ships dismantled globally, 641 – representing 74% of the total gross tonnage (GT) scrapped – were sold to substandard shipbreaking facilities in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh where ships are dismantled directly on tidal beaches. None of these South Asian yards comply with international standards for safe and environmentally sound ship recycling; however, selling end-of-life vessels to the beaching yards is the most profitable choice for ship owners as the costs for clean and safe operations do not have to be taken into account. This practice allows ship owners to externalise the reals costs of proper recycling onto workers, local communities and the environment in other parts of the world.

End-of-life ships contain toxic materials such as asbestos, heavy metals, PCBs, oil residues and organic waste within their structures – these pollutants cannot be contained or safely removed on a tidal beach. Pakistan and Bangladesh totally lack the infrastructure to dispose or destroy the hazardous materials; in India hazardous waste streams are not transparent. In the all three countries, shipbreaking yards lack the expertise to identify asbestos and other hazardous materials, do not properly protect, train and equip staff for hazardous waste removal, and re-sell parts containing toxic materials on the local market.

Apart from hazardous waste, the demolition of the largest movable man-made structures is generally dangerous and must be conducted in a controlled manner using adequate infrastructure such as cranes as well as necessary health and safety provisions – in 2014 the Platform reported 23 deaths and 66 severe injuries due to accidents such as explosions, workers crushed under steel plates and falling from heights on the South Asian beaches. Although there is no official documentation of injuries and fatalities in the yards and access to information is restricted, our local contacts count fatal and severe injuries. This death toll is very high compared to other industries, as the shipbreaking industry has a comparatively small work force compared to larger sectors (a few ten thousand workers each in the shipbreaking countries). Moreover, there are many undocumented deaths from accidents and occupational diseases which occur years after a worker has left the yard. Trade unionists have pointed at the alarmingly low life expectancy of shipbreaking workers.

A particular responsibility for European ship owners
The European Union has a particular responsibility to act – 34% of the gross tonnage broken in South Asia last year was owned by European ship owners just before breaking. Altogether, European ship owners sold 285 obsolete vessels for breaking. Two thirds of these European ships – 182 ships, including many having primarily operated in European waters – were beached in South Asia. Whilst large European shipping nations such as Greece and Germany unsurprisingly top the list of 2014 worst dumping countries, selling respectively 70 and 41 large oceangoing vessels to South Asian breakers, they also top the list of ship-owning countries which sell almost exclusively to South Asian breakers, rather than to modern recyclers. Cyprus owners sold a record high 92% of their old ships to substandard yards in South Asia, German owners as much as 87% and Greek owners 76%. For a comparison: China as one of the largest ship-owning nations in the world has become more or less self-sufficient for the clean and safe recycling of ships. The Chinese government offers subsidies to Chinese ship owners who decide to sell their old vessels for dismantling in one of the modern ship recycling yards within China.

Circumvention of international waste law
In international environmental law, especially under the waste law regime of the Basel Convention, end-of-life vessels are considered as hazardous waste. Their transboundary movement therefore falls under the obligation of Prior Informed Consent (PIC) and should be reduced to a minimum between developed and developing countries. The European Union (EU) 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 where the hazardous waste is not properly disposed of or destroyed. However, ship owners circumvent the law by not informing authorities in the EU about their intent to sell a vessel, and by handing over an end-of-life vessel to a middle man once they are outside the EU or already on the high seas. Even ships owned by European governments, in the last years for instance France, Bulgaria or Poland, have been sent to beaching facilities in what the Platform considers a breach of the EU Waste Shipment Regulation (WSR).

If authorities are informed on time about the intentions of an owner to sell an end-of-life vessel, they may also stop an illegal export. In 2012, German authorities halted the “Northern Vitality” in the port of Wilhelmshaven, after the Platform had informed the environment ministry that the vessel had been sold for breaking in India. In summer 2014, the Belgian authorities arrested the “Global Spirit” in the port of Antwerp, after the Platform had informed them that the car carrier had been sold for demolition in India. The ship owner was obliged to find a legal solution and the vessel was finally sold for clean and safe recycling in Turkey.

As the Basel Convention and the laws derived from it are regularly circumvented by ship owners, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) developed a new international treaty focusing on ship recycling only. States adopted the Hong Kong Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships in 2009. The IMO has also developed further guidance such as the 2012 Guidelines for ship recycling facilities. However, the Convention has not yet entered into force due to a very slow ratification process 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 use it as a fig leaf to shy away from their responsibilities today. When being criticised for their malpractice, they can easily refer to a future convention, which does not put any obligation on them, not today and not tomorrow. The Platform asks all ship owners to already adhere to a voluntary code of conduct, a ship recycling policy, and to make sure they do not sell their vessels for breaking in substandard yards. This approach has been adopted by leading ship owners such as Maersk from Denmark or Hapag Lloyd from Germany, companies which have their end-of-life vessels recycled in China under strict monitoring.

Shipbreaking: 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 and successful court cases at the Supreme Courts in India and Bangladesh, did the governments start to seek regulation for the yards. In Bangladesh, the industry had operated without being acknowledged by the authorities. Despite these developments, the day labourers who cut down the ships are still mostly unskilled migrant workers and are not trained well to properly use personal protective equipment (PPE), to react correctly in emergency situations, and to apply proper procedures. With regards to hazardous materials, not enough care is given to the protection of workers’ health and safety. For instance, many workers in the Bangladesh shipbreaking yards still go barefoot or just were plastic slippers. Also in the Indian shipbreaking yards, workers active on the ships do not wear safety harnesses, and those cutting steel parts and thick layers of toxics paints are exposed to the fumes with any protection for the respiratory system. Due to the lack of heavy lifting equipment, poor training of workers and foremen, inadequate security measures against falling from heights, lack procedures for hot work and work in confined spaces, as well as the disregard for proper PPEs, accidents and the exposure to hazardous substances are a still major threat to workers in the shipbreaking yards.

Dire working and living conditions
In all three shipbreaking countries, the largest part of the workforce in the yards consists of poor migrant workers coming from other parts of the country. They do not have contracts and do not have an employment relationship with the yard. A so-called contractor brings them in and pays them. Overtime and weekend work are often not paid and the worker do not enjoy any holidays. They either set up shacks around the shipbreaking yards or rent small huts from the local population – often the accommodation does not have clean drinking water or sanitation, so that living conditions are not hygienic. This is particularly alarming when workers live with their families. In Bangladesh, up to one fourth of the work force consists of children and adolescent workers. Employing workers under 18 is illegal in Bangladesh for hazardous industries and during night shift. Still, the Platform has regularly documented that teenage boys are especially used for highly dangerous work during the night when not labour inspector passed by.

Why old ships are hazardous waste
The ships’ structures contain toxics such as asbestos, heavy metals, 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), dioxins and furans. Moreover, a lot of these hazardous substances are released into the environment and contaminate seawater, the 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. The lead and oil concentrations were a major concern of the World Bank report as well. Especially asbestos 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 would have to be properly managed.

Moreover, the World Bank report estimated that in Bangladesh millions of tons of hazardous waste from shipbreaking pile up in a couple of years: 79.000t of asbestos, 240.000t of PCBs mainly in cables, 210.000t of ozone-depleting substances, 69.200t of paints containing heavy metals, TBT and PCBs, 678t of heavy metals, nearly 2 million cubic meters of liquid organic waste and a million ton of other hazardous wastes, mainly sewage.

Apart from the contamination, shipbreaking causes further environmental damage. In Bangladesh, ten thousand mangrove trees – planted with the help of the international community in order to protect the coast from cyclones – were cut down illegally to make space for the yards. Studies have shown that the biodiversity in fish and crustacean has decreased sharply along the Chittagong coast in Bangladesh, endangering fishermen’s livelihoods.

Off the beach!
We and our member organisations in South Asia emphasize that shipbreaking should not take place directly on the beaches, but in proper industrial platforms. As long as shipbreaking is practiced on sandy or muddy beaches with the tide coming in twice a day, the full containment of pollutants and the adequate management of hazardous wastes are not 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 by ambulances or fire fighters in cases of accidents as no vehicle can reach out directly to a vessel stuck in the sand. Therefore, we promote a transition towards cleaner and safer methods compared to those already used in other ship recycling countries in Europe, in Turkey or China.

The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, especially in its Guidelines on ship dismantling, has proposed to discard beach-breaking for stable structures. Nearly all major ship owning countries as well as the shipbreaking countries in South Asia have ratified the Basel Convention. What is more, also the European Union, in particular the European Commission and the European Parliament, have made it very clear during the legislative process for the new EU Ship Recycling Regulation, that the current substandard beaching method will not be acceptable anymore for European ships in the future. However, even if some minor improvements have been achieved in some shipbreaking yards over the past years, we do not yet see any structural change in South Asian yards while the majority of European-owned ships still end up there.

Clean and safe ship recycling
Already today, there are cleaner and safer methods for ship recycling. Turkey practices the landing method, where ships are partly pulled ashore and then dismantled both with 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. If practiced correctly, the landing method ensures that all steps of recycling a ship are made over a drained and contained area. A second method practiced in China, by European recyclers for example in the UK, Denmark or Belgium, as well as in North America, is the pier-side method. The vessel is brought along a quay and dismantled by cranes from top to bottom. Once only the lower part of the hull is left, it is pulled into 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. Finally, there is the possibility to use a dry dock for ship recycling. Chinese, French and British facilities, for instance, apply this method, which is obviously the safest and cleanest method of ship recycling. However, ship owners mainly choose the most lucrative method in order to retrieve the biggest possible profit from the sale of their end-of-life vessel: beaching.

Governments in South Asia have to trigger long-term financial investments in the yards, in built structures, impermeable floors, machinery, asbestos removal facilities, waste storage and systems to manage hazardous wastes. We have been asking the developed, ship-owning states to assist the shipbreaking countries on their way to real structural change. So far, neither the South Asian governments nor the ship-owning countries have implemented a big step forward. There are a couple of development projects seeking to improve the conditions; however, none of them aims at fundamentally changing the current situation and motivating South Asian shipbreakers to move away from beaching to clean and safe methods which would also be acceptable in Europe or other ship-owning countries such as China or Japan.

EU Regulation on Ship Recycling: little impact?
Despite the international law in place, most end-of-life vessels still end up in substandard facilities, as the Platform’s research has shown again with the publication of the list of “Global Dumpers” in February 2015. The EU has long recognized 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 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 end-of-life vessels have to be listed by the EU as being compliant with the regulation. The regulation was finally adopted and entered into force in December 2013.

The regulation will only put obligations on EU-flagged end-of-life ships – only a small percentage of all EU-owned ships sold for demolition. Most European ships fly flags of convenience (FOC) during their last voyage. NGOs are afraid that the regulation will be a further motivation for ship owners to flag out to FOCs such as St Kitts Nevis or Tuvalu, which are very popular end-of-life flags offering cheap last voyages offers, in order not to fall under the scope of the regulation. Just as they have circumvented the export ban before, ship owners can easily avoid the new obligation to use listed facilities by flagging out to non-European flags.

Moreover, the Platform has criticised the regulation as it does not introduce any economic incentive to encourage ship owners to choose for responsible ship recycling. Without any financial mechanism, the regulation will have little impact. The Platform welcomed the decision by the European Parliament’s rapporteur on the issue, Carl Schlyter, to introduce a ship recycling fund. Despite a clear majority in the Environment Committee, the Parliament voted down the fund in plenary after heavy lobbying both from the ship owners associations as well as the European ports. The Parliament asked the Commission to develop a financial model to internalise costs for clean and safe ship recycling, which means that there will be a further delay of several years to introduce such an economic incentive.

However, the new Ship Recycling Regulation is a clear signal to ship owners that beaching is not acceptable and that they will be held responsible for clean and safe ship recycling. The list of compliant ship recycling facilities, which the European Commission will publish later this year, will set a global standard for clean and safe ship recycling and will make it easier for ship owners to make a good choice. Ship owners’ association now discuss the issue and more and more ship owners realise that they have to act. Also large cargo owners, major retailers from Europe, have discovered the issues and will demand safe and clean recycling from their forwarders. Moreover, the regulation will demand an Inventory of Hazardous Materials (IHM) on board of every ship calling at an EU port in the future. IHMs are the basic tool to allow for safe and clean ship recycling. So far the vast majority of end-of-life vessels do not have an inventory – the regulation will change this.

An economic incentive for real change
The NGOs have been promoting a mandatory economic incentive for clean and safe ship recycling for many years in order to internalize the costs for proper ship recycling and the management of hazardous wastes, to discourage the reflagging of end-of-life vessels to avoid European regulations and to implement an individual ship owner responsibility scheme which encourages the shipping industry to procure green ship design and pre-clean ships during operational use.

The Polluter-Pays Principle or cost internalization 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 externalizing 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 for proper ship recycling covering all ships calling at EU ports will discourage re-flagging shortly before breaking. Several studies already published on the issue have shown that different models for such a mechanism are economically and legally feasible.

A clear message from the Environment Commissioner
The new EU Ship Recycling Regulation is not yet applicable, as the Commission needs to first publish a list of compliant facilities, which are able to at least recycle 2.5 million light displacement tons every year. It is expected to become applicable in 2016. Although the new regulation out-rules the use of the beaching method to dismantle EU-flagged vessels, 41 ships registered under the flags of EU Member states Malta, Italy, Cyprus, UK and Greece hit the beaches in 2014. 15 additional ships changed their flag from an EU to a non-EU flag just weeks before reaching South Asia. As in previous years, particular flags of convenience such as Saint Kitts and Nevis (64 ships), Comoros (39 ships), Tuvalu (24 ships), Tanzania (20 ships) and Togo (20 ships) that are less favoured during operational use, were excessively popular flags for the end-of-life ships broken in South Asia.

On 27 February 2015, the new Environment Commission of the EU, Karmenu Vella spoke to the Environment Committee in the European Parliament and said that the EU has “to stop the shameful practice of European ships being dismantled on beaches”. We are optimistic that a smart mix of European and international regulation, an economic incentive, and voluntary commitments by the ship owners will allow us to reach this objective in the near future.

Note about the author
Patrizia Heidegger is the Executive Director of the NGO Shipbreaking Platform, a global coalition of 19 environmental, human and labour rights non-governmental organisations based in Brussels. The Platform seeks to prevent shipbreaking on tidal beaches, which is the root cause for dangerous working conditions and environmental pollution in the sector, and promotes clean and safe ship recycling.

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