Irresponsible ship-breaking practices – a sinking ship?

Ellinor Häggebrink by Ellinor Häggebrink, Engagement Manager at GES

In recent years, there has been a lot of criticism of corporate ship recycling practices. Pictures have been leaked out of so-called ship graveyards in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, where workers are seen dismantling huge ships piece by piece wearing flip-flops and without any protective gear. The majority of the world’s ship-breaking takes place in these three countries, where ships are dismantled directly on beaches without proper installations or equipment, a practice known as beaching. There are many challenges related to this industry, which sees a high number of fatalities and serious injuries every year. Casualties from falling pieces of steel and explosions are common, and workers seldom receive proper training or protective equipment. Ship-breaking also carries environmental risks as end-of-life-vessels are often toxic, containing hazardous materials as asbestos, lead and mercury. When not properly removed and disposed of, these substances can pollute coastal soil, groundwater and sea and marine life, which in turn affects local communities.

Ship-breaking on Chittagong beach, 2010

Additionally, the number of ships to be dismantled in the coming years is expected to increase drastically due to the global phase-out of single-hulled ships[1], it is clear that the ship-breaking industry faces big challenges. On the other hand, this is an excellent source of momentum to implement more responsible recycling practices, as the current standards resemble a sinking ship.

There were expectations that the Hong Kong Convention on the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships, adopted in 2009, would lead to improvement. However, it has so far failed to live up to hopes of a swift and far-reaching change of industry conditions as only seven countries have ratified it, while there is a 15-state minimum ratification for it to enter into force. The EU has tried to contribute to improved industry standards through the EU Ship Recycling Regulation, stating that EU-flagged ships must go to EU-approved ship recycling facilities and to exclude shipbreaking yards in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan that use the beaching method. However, the regulation only applies to a limited amount of the global fleet, and also comes with the risk of falsely re-flagged ships[2], which makes monitoring and compliance challenging.

Consequently, international regulation aimed at safer and more sustainable practices has so far proved to be toothless. This opens the door for companies to step up their game, create responsible ship-breaking practices and stop the dire conditions we see today. With an increasing number of ships set to be dismantled, this is a great opportunity to turn the ship around once and for all.



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