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Shipbreaking Practices
The world transports roughly 90 percent of its goods by sea. Shipping is vital to the global economy — it enables trade among people, nations and companies, but rarely does one sit back and think about what happens to these mammoth-sized ships once they reach the end of their operational life. How does one manage the waste that a 100,000-ton cargo ship creates? The answer is shipbreaking practices.

Shipbreaking Practices 101

Shipbreaking, the process of recycling old ships so others may use them as piecemeal, is dangerous for workers and the environment. However, innovations in the field are paving a path for more sustainable and just shipping practices. Shipbreaking involves dismantling ships and selling them off in parts. The process occurs 25-30 years into a ship’s life at which point the costs of maintaining an old ship exceed those of building a new ship.

Shipbreaking is a dangerous industry for workers and the environment alike. Europe and the United States have placed heavy restrictions on the practice due to regard for social and environmental protection laws, but instead of addressing the industry’s problems, the crackdown has merely moved shipbreaking to the east. Today, an estimated 85 percent of the world’s ship recycling occurs in just four countries: India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and China. 

The Human Cost of Shipbreaking Practices

 The International Labor Organization considers shipbreaking to be one of the world’s most dangerous industries. Most of the time, workers take apart ships by hand without protective gear or equipment. They do this in 40-degree heat on beaches far away from hospitals or emergency rooms in case things go awry. Most injuries and deaths occur due to general accidents like falling material and fires or exposure to toxic materials like radiation, mercury and asbestos.

It is difficult to estimate the number of fatalities since many shipyard workers are migrants. However, evaluations indicate that the accident rate lies at two in 1,000 people. Further, 16 percent of workers suffer from asbestos-related diseases. 

The Environmental Cost of Shipbreaking Practices

In addition to the cost to human lives, shipbreaking is detrimental to the environment. Much of shipbreaking occurs via beaching which is a method of ramming vessels into tidal flats, typically on a beach and stripping them of all usable materials by hammer and blowtorch. Beaching tends to be the most environmentally and socially damaging approach to ship recycling. Steel waste, oil from vessels and persistent organic pollutants enter waterways and pollute the air, killing valuable species and ecosystems in the process.

For instance, the Bay of Bengal, located in Bangladesh, is the world’s largest bay and boasts diverse marine life ranging from coral reefs and mangroves to fish spawning of vulnerable species. The Bay of Bengal is also in close proximity to one of the world’s biggest ship recycling sites: Chittagong. Metal waste that is not resellable often stays on shores, washing into the Bay at alarming rates, and thereby increasing the cadmium and copper levels in the water. This increases fish mortality and affects hatching around the port city. Waste and other pollutants put especially rare marine species at the risk of extinction.

A Better Future: Alternatives to Current Shipbreaking Practices 

Currently, the best alternative to beaching is dry-dock stand recycling. Using this method, workers safely recycle ships on a stable platform with the necessary toxic waste management systems and lifting equipment. Most ships are already built on dry-dock platforms so this method is simply giving existing docks a secondary purpose. It is a non-invasive approach to fixing a big problem. The NGO Shipbreaking Platform, a 10-year-old coalition of environmental, human and labor rights organizations, is making significant strides in advocating for dry-dock platform recycling methods. It has pushed through progressive E.U. laws on ship recycling standards and publishes annual data on ships dismantled globally. The publication allows investors to divest from shipping companies that engage in harmful shipbreaking practices. One such example is Norway’s Sovereign Wealth Fund divestment decision. Based on data that the NGO Shipbreaking Platform published, the fund decided to divest from two shipowners for poor ship recycling management in 2018.

Another potential solution to addressing shipbreaking is changing the manufacturing of vessels altogether. With an approach that is a more transformative approach, there are accompanying complications. Currently, ship transport generates 3 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions per year. Making ship design more environmental can tackle this larger issue in addition to greenifying ship recycling.

According to a 2020 study by the International Council on Clean Transportation, hydrogen could power 99 percent of container vessels traversing the Pacific ocean. More than half of those vessels would require minimal changes to make this transition happen. Government-funded organizations like Sandia National Laboratories and private companies like Golden Gate Zero Emission Marine are currently researching hydrogen-based solutions in shipping. 

Hydrogen-powered ships are likely still 10 years out in the future but investment in these ideas will fundamentally change the way we approach the manufacturing and recycling of ships globally.

Current end-of-life ship recycling practices damage the environment and harm workers in developing countries who must work under life-threatening conditions within the industry. The good news is that an alternative exists. Dry-dock shipping yards provide a safe and environmentally sound alternative to current shipbreaking practices. Changing shipbreaking practices now depend on individuals and coalitions like the NGO Shipbreaking Platform to advocate for widespread adoption.

Kate McGinn
Photo: Wikimedia