shipbreaking ship recycling scrapping

Shipbreaking at Alang. Photo: IMO

A perspective on ship recycling and how to end beaching 

Like most other things, ships don’t last forever. After 25-30 years they are no longer commercially usable and therefore taken out of service to be dismantled. The materials are recycled to a lesser or greater extent – since a large cargo vessel may consist of 20-40,000 tons of steel, they clearly have a market value as steel scrap.

The vast majority of ships are taken to India, Pakistan or Bangladesh to be scrapped on the beach. There is something quite wrong with that.  People in flip flops on beaches are OK. But people on beaches wearing flip flops and no safety gear while taking apart massive cargo ships with hand tools is simply wrong.

Unsurprisingly, ship breaking is one of the most dangerous industries. According to the EU Commission, it is six times more likely to die at work in the Indian shipbreaking industry than in the Indian mining industry, and according to a recent report from Sustainalyitics, 1,000 people died in the Bangladesh ship breaking industry over a 10 year period.

NGOs argue that beaching must end now. We agree. In Maersk Line we have a policy on responsible ship recycling. Since 2006, we have recycled 23 ships responsibly, and we have sent none to the beach.

Most of our ships, however, are sold off well before they get too old to operate as it is important to us to have a modern and energy efficient fleet. And from time to time we are criticized by NGOs that the scope of our policy is too narrow because it only covers our own ships and not chartered vessels – and because we don’t sell ships with a clause that they should be recycled responsibly.

I doubt that such a clause would really serve as any guarantee for responsible ship recycling but that is actually besides the point I am trying to make here. We don’t like to see ships that have served us being sent to the beach, but we also think it is important to draw a line in the sand.

While it is important to us to take good care of our old ships, we don’t think it is the way forward for us to sponsor that other companies take good care of their old ships as well. And we really don’t think that the issue of unsafe and unsustainable beaching is well addressed by private companies alone.

The real answer to the problem is global regulation that raises the legally acceptable minimum standard for ship recycling. In 2009, the Hong Kong Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships was adopted. Yet in 2013, only two countries have ratified it.

The Hong Kong Convention is not perfect – actually it doesn’t ban beaching, it just makes it a lot harder to scrap ships this way. But it is the best we have, and if it entered into force, it could be improved over time.

So we need more countries to ratify the convention. Actually, it’s fair to ask what’s holding them back. Did governments change their opinion since 2009 when they adopted the Hong Kong Convention and now think that beaching is not an issue, or is it simply lack of priority?

If the health and safety statistics of the ship breaking industry is not enough of an argument for the Hong Kong Convention, here is another argument: Over the coming decades, steel will get scarcer and therefore more expensive, which means we  need to become better at steel recycling.

When ships are scrapped on beaches, I will argue that it is less likely that the materials are recycled to their full potential. Taking ships to proper recycling yards like the ones in China will enable a far better recycling of the steel for use in building new ships and other constructions.

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  • Tups

    It’s kind of nice to see the shipbreaking industry returning to Europe (Fornaes in Denmark, for example). It’s still dirty business, of course, but that’s exactly the reason why we shouldn’t outsource it.

  • Timbo

    If they want the work, let them work. There is a market price for that type of labor and I’m betting that Pakistani labor is at the proper price signal vs. a developed economy’s labor.

  • Paul G.

    See *The Atlantic Monthly; August 2000; The Shipbreakers – 00.08; Volume 286, No. 2; page 31-49 for long and very detailed look at beach ship breaking in India. It is pretty gruesome and crude in all ways: worker safety as mentioned above, environmental effects and even use of the steel. Steel was melted just enough to draw into re rods for Asian high rises without a lot of concern for purifying it. The workers are very poor and desperate people who have few better opportunities, and the living conditions in the area with all the pollution are abysmal.

  • fred parle

    We agree with those well informed people who dislike dirty industry. However where there is extreme poverty and lack of official supervision there is generally a very little encouragement to modernise and come up to what your contributors know as word accepted standards, a luxury that many sectors in less well off countried , just cannot afford , until railroaded by the affluent parts of the worldto improve the conditions for workers workplaces.

  • HUGH JANUS

    What would these people do without shipbreaking ? No Industry, uneducated. Their destiny is written in the rotting hulks that line the beaches. Leave them to their misserable lives…

  • Ronald A Palmer

    Agree with Hugh Janus we become complete meddlers through being our brothers keepers.

  • Ashan Silva

    The concerns are absolutely correct. But the fact is where this IMO regulation holding responsibility for this. They are worried about all the things same as that they have to keep the class responsible until the vessel end up their life span. No sooner it is out of water class is out of action. It is always better to amend regulations to control the scrapping as well. Ship owners are tend to sell their old crap to the best deal and they are not bothered about anything ( environment / safety / ect. ) after that. It is very obvious in most of the develop countries how they get rid of a simple car. Authorities are controlling it until last moment and owners are responsible for all of that. As an example owners can hand their vessel over to a reputed ship recycling company lie GMS (ISO 9001 qualified). Where the company following all the standards and taking the responsibility to demolish the old crap in a proper and safe way. If you continue to hand over the vessels to the best price to an un recognized company to scrape them yes of course this can be a real concern very soon. IMO should come into the scene to control those as well.

  • SUNIL

    The risks higlighted for workers are true. But this is also a livelihood for many. This industry will continue & only think the concerned parties can do is to improve the working conditions by providing PPE’s & adopting to certain safety norms

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