When ships like oil tankers and cargo vessels pass their use by date they are broken up for scrap. Large ships are generally built by companies in countries like Japan, South Korea and Germany, but when it comes time for recycling and disposal they are sent to Pakistan, Bangladesh, India... Here thousands of low paid workers use basic tools to strip and break up the pollution-saturated hulls. The activities can take place on beaches – at high tide ships are driven up onto the sand. It takes between 5 weeks and 6 months to dismantle a tanker. After 25-30 years ships are at the end of their life and every year about 600-700 make their final voyage to the scrap yards of Asia. Signs are that scrapping rates will increase as our existing fleet ages and regulations are introduced to update ship design.
A rusting toxic hulk
Ships sent to the Asian scrap yards carry with them a cargo of toxic chemicals and components. In most instances ship owners do not identify the potential toxins. These include asbestos from insulation and gasket seals, polychlorinated biphenyls contained in hoses, foam insulation and paint, and a range of heavy metals like lead, mercury and cadmium. Gases are supposed to be removed before the ships are delivered, but accidents from leaking gas, like the one that occurred in Bangladesh in 2003 (exposing 100’s of people to toxic fumes), are all too common. If ships are not dismantled in an environmentally sound manner, the area around the ships absorbs the toxins, permanently contaminating the sediments.
The ship breakers
Prior to 1970, shipbeaking was concentrated in Europe. It was a highly mechanised activity carried out at docks by skilled workers. However the increasing cost of upholding environmental health and safety guidelines made it unprofitable. So the industry moved from the steel capped boots and hard hats of Europe to the bare footed workers of Asia. It is estimated that approximately 100 000 Asians are employed as ship breakers (International Labour Organisation). Workers are exposed to toxic fumes, excessive noise and heat, all in a climate of low wages, poor job security (changes in the scrap price can see thousands laid off) and an almost total absence of occupational safety and health regulations.
A new lease of life
About 95% of a ship’s body is made of mild steel with the rest made up of stainless steel, and miscellaneous metals, such as brass, aluminium, copper and other alloys. Places like Bangladesh and India are dependent on shipbreaking for their domestic steel. The steel scrap supports a multitude of industries, employing millions of people. Ship fittings and stores are also traded. These may include engines, boilers, furniture, electronics, clothing, foodstuffs and first aid equipment. Prices paid for old ships vary enormously. Between 2001 and 2003 the price fluctuated between US $48 and US $240 (Greenpeace 2003).
Finding a safer way
A number of international organisations like the Basel Convention, the International Maritime Organisation, and the International Labour Organisation are working to find a safer way to recycle old ships. Ship owners have agreed in principal to provide buyers with a gas free certificate and a list of hazardous materials and their location. Some western countries are investigating the possibility of establishing high tech, environmentally safe shipbreaking yards.