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Towards a safe, more sustainable future for ship recycling
The ship-recycling industry is a major supplier of steel and an important part of the economy of many countries. The recycling of scrap metals from ships also reduces the need for mining, an environmentally damaging practice. In this way, it is a vital part of the circular economy — which purports to minimise waste and recycle some materials infinitely. However, mounting evidence of the impacts of current ship-recycling practices undermines the industry contribution to sustainable development
This editorial was taken from the Science for Environment Policy thematic issue on ship recycling.
However, mounting evidence of the impacts of current ship-recycling practices undermines the industry’s contribution to sustainable development.
In the ship recycling industry, most ships are run aground on tidal mudflats, a practice referred to as ‘beaching’, before low-paid workers dismantle them, often without protective equipment or heavy machinery; the Global Trade Union IndustriAll has described it as “the world’s most dangerous job”. The shipbreaking industry in South Asia has caused dozens of fatalities per year among workers – according to official statistics between 1983 and 20131, there were 470 fatalities in the Indian shipbreaking yards.
Moreover, some shipbreaking practices have highly concerning environmental and human impacts, releasing materials such as oil, asbestos and toxic paints into the local environment, and disrupting biodiversity. There have been local attestations of significant pollution to the surrounding environment and its resultant impacts on wildlife, farming and communities.
In 2015, 78% of total dismantled shipping tonnage in the world was beached, with European owners accounting for around one third. German and Greek owners beached 74% and 87% of their disposed vessels respectively, while Norwegian owners recycled 13 of their 17 end-of-life vessels in modernised facilities.
European ship owners actually control over 40% of the world’s merchant fleet, with Greece the top ship-owning country globally. However, only 22% of vessels fly the flag of an EU Member State. This discrepancy relates to the use of ‘flags of convenience’: at the end of their life, ships are ‘reflagged’ (at low cost) in ship registries of countries with a poor record of implementing international legislation. As the NGO Shipbreaking Platform has shown, end-of-life ‘flags of convenience’ — which are hardly used while ships are operational — can be used to reduce costs and avoid legislation intended to ensure environmental protection and workers’ rights. These changes also disguise the real economic stakes in the ownership of a ship. Nearly 40% of all end-of-life ships beached in South Asia in 2014 were imported under flags with a particularly weak record of enforcing international law, such as Comoros, St Kitts and Nevis, and Tuvalu. In 2014, only 7.7% of all beached ships (by Gross Tonnage (GT)) were still registered under an EU flag, although 32% were still under EU ownership. Indeed, almost 73% of the world’s fleet is flagged in a country other than the country of beneficial ownership.
For these reasons, several bodies and mechanisms, including the UN’s (still un-ratified) Convention for Registration of Ships (1986), have called for a more genuine link to be established between ownership and flag state, to avoid such evasion of responsibility — and to allow for effective enforcement via flag-state jurisdiction.
In total, the world shipping fleet grew by 42 million GT in 2014. However, overall growth rates in the industry have been slowing. The tonnage reported for demolition (22 million GT) has decreased since the record year of 2012, where at least 36 million GT were demolished. In recent years, the decrease in ship cargo has meant that many older vessels may be more financially viable as scrap. In addition, previously ‘seaworthy’ ships around the world are being retired earlier than ever. UNCTAD notes that there is still an ‘oversupply of tonnage’ in the market, and the age of scrapped ships is getting younger. This oversupply can be attributed to poor planning ahead of the global economic crisis, the introduction of stricter standards and the desire to upgrade ships with new high-tech, on-board technologies and modern architecture.
Such pressures all add to the need to establish a more competent, safe and sustainable global infrastructure to dismantle ships.
The International Maritime Organisation’s Hong Kong Convention 2009, intends to impose new requirements on ships from ‘cradle to grave’, covering issues around ship recycling on a global scale. However, only four of a required 15 states have ratified the convention (as of March 2016), while the combined gross tonnage of their fleets is far from the required 40% of the world\'s merchant shipping. They are also far from possessing facilities able to recycle 3% of the gross tonnage of the signatory states annually. The International Chamber of Shipping has called the rate of uptake “disappointingly slow”, and has released transitional guidelines to help ship owners to comply with the IMO Convention, ahead of enforcement – such as inventorying all hazardous wastes. Moreover, the Hong Kong Convention does not cover ‘downstream’ waste management, i.e. what happens to waste once it leaves the ship recycling facility.
More locally, the EU Ship Recycling Regulation (EC 1257/2013) 2013 intends to ensure that shipbreakers provide evidence of pollution containment, as well as of adequate disposal facilities for hazardous waste. Owners of ships flying the flags of EU Member States will have to ensure that their ships are recycled in facilities included on a new approved list of facilities.
These will be progressive steps forward, relative to the current norm. However, both the IMO and EU frameworks remain based upon flag-state jurisdiction. Therefore, a critique remains that legislation based upon flag-state enforcement could have little effect if ships are ‘reflagged’ for convenience at end of life. Continuation of re-flagging practices would mean that neither regulation could uphold a ‘polluter pays’ principle in every case, as they stand.
There is a clear need for ship owners to internalise the environmental and social costs created by breaking ships to some greater extent. Exact mechanisms to ensure greater responsibility are still being progressed; beyond legislation, levies, licenses, or a life-cycle ship-dismantling fund with costs borne by the ship owners have also been posited.
To return to those who currently bear the costs, many media images published on the subject of the ship yards appeal to public understanding of these issues: alternately the workers in appalling safety and environmental conditions on the beaches of South Asia, and the shipbreaking companies’ more sterile, public-relations images of secondary plate-cutting zones. However, an ecological conflict of such global concern cannot be judged on images alone; detailed data is essential. In all the complexity of global perspectives, what is sometimes overlooked is the fact that precise research is already available, which might form a precipitant to meaningful action.
This Thematic Issue looks at the peer-reviewed science behind shipbreaking, by presenting a selection of recent research on the environmental and human impacts. The Issue also includes practical studies that examine the steps that ship designers and operators could take to have a constructive impact on current ship recycling methods.
Research carried out in Chittagong, Bangladesh notes that the concentration of toxic chemicals in the air, at several sites, was found to be above carcinogenic risk limits. Indeed, research has shown that ship-recycling workers can suffer from proportionally high rates of cancer, resulting in increased mortality. Another study traces asbestos-related cancer rates in Taiwanese shipbreaking workers, where a positive link is found between cancer incidence and exposure. As a result, the researchers recommend that any shipbreaking workers who may have been exposed to asbestos in the past have regular health checks in order to detect disease early. They also recommend legislation to ban all asbestos-containing products (which is still lacking in many parts of the world including India), both in the workplace and general environmental settings.
Another study on pollution in India showed significantly higher levels of heavy metal and petroleum hydrocarbons in sediment and seawater, compared to a control site — as well as increased numbers of pathogenic bacteria. The latter is a finding supported by evidence from another study, on the disruption of microbacterial communities near Alang-Sosiya, showing a high abundance of bacteria in polluted water samples, but their marked absence in the unpolluted control water. In another study, the researchers found 81 milligrams of small plastic fragments per kg of sediment, which, they say, is the direct result of ship breaking. Yet another found that the area surrounding the Alang-Sosiya yards was found to be ‘strongly polluted’ with copper, cobalt, manganese, lead and zinc. This is again supported by different researchers, operating in Chittagong, who conclude that heavy metal pollution is at an alarming stage and an urgent threat to marine life and biodiversity. They recommend establishing a separate area for the shipbreaking activities, such as a dockyard, to mitigate damage to the coastal environment.
One researcher has explored the current and possible future status of shipbreaking in Bangladesh, with a particular focus on the outlook for workers. In each of the four possible scenarios, the workers come off worst: there is currently no best-case situation for the people who face the risk of accident, illness or death in the shipbreaking industry, or unemployment outside of it.
Shipbreaking seriously impacts the environment, but some methods are less damaging than others. A major ship-recycling centre, Turkey is the only OECD country to have an established shipbreaking industry. Turkey uses a modified ‘slipway recycling’ technique where ships are dragged onto a concrete slipway, which extends into the sea, before being dismantled. We summarise a study examining the environmental, health and safety issues surrounding the Turkish industry and its compliance with environmental regulations.
Researchers elsewhere estimate the costs of upgrading existing ship recycling facilities to more environmentally friendly, regulation-compliant standards. They conclude that the main barriers to a greener ship recycling industry lie in fear of job losses and a lack of strict regulations for ship owners or lenders in the second-hand shipping or scrap trade.
Another piece of research looks at the environmental impact of shipbreaking in one of Europe’s ship recycling yards, in Portugal. Using a life-cycle assessment tool to model impacts for 23 different types of ship over four scenarios, they conclude that ship recycling has negative environmental impacts, whatever the methods used — but that the impacts of ship dismantling are less damaging than abandonment or sinking. They recommend that the valorisation of parts to encourage their re-use, recycling and treatment can mitigate some of the impact.
The concept of ‘Design for recycling’, where end-of–life hazards are considered early on during the shipbuilding design process, is promoted by other research. This could involve identifying risks, such as toxic paints, or inefficiencies, such as oil tanks that must be manually cleaned before they can be recycled.
In another study, the researchers aim to estimate the environmental impact of the end-of-life phase of a ship compared to its overall life cycle – and another set of researchers reveal the carbon footprint and resources consumed in the cutting of steel plates. This research could help the design of technological solutions to reduce these emissions, such as removing surface coatings before cutting.
Most large transport industries, such as cars and aviation, have established component-listing schemes for manufacturing, whereas the shipping industry has no such standardised practice. An ongoing pilot project is being conducted with four shipping companies using a software system to help trace and track materials used in ship construction. The researchers conclude that the data could be used to encourage responsibility for the social and environmental effects of the materials used, from construction to recycling.
A final study looks into ways that different interested parties (including environmentalists, the Indian authorities, shipping companies, ship recyclers and their workers) arrive at divergent conclusions regarding the costs and benefits — and ultimately, the legality — of recycling activities at Alang-Sosiya.
Given the current high human and environmental costs, it seems likely that ship owners and breakers, state mechanisms and international legislation will each need to continue to evolve and increase their cooperation to fill the gaps. The aim is that the operation of ship recycling facilities in a safe, environmentally sound and beneficial manner will, in the future, complement the circular-economy principles that hold great value for both this industry and global society.
Published: Tuesday, 5th July 2016