Ship breaking still a headache for industry

Some progress has been made towards installing better working practices at ship breaking yards in developing countries but there is still a long way to go before they are safe - for both the environment and the workers.

This was the message of Graveyards and ghosts - debating the disposal of condemned ships and marine structures, a seminar held at the Seatrade International Maritime Convention held in London's Docklands this week.

Paul Bailey from the UN's International Labour Organisation set the scene for the debate, piloting delegates through the murky waters of EU and global agreements on hazardous waste and highlighting the particular difficulties that applied when applying them to ships.

Greenpeace's Martin Besieux described dirty ship breaking as the shame of the shipping industry, though he acknowledged that some ship owners had made efforts to improve the situation since news of the dangerous and damaging practices employed on the beaches of China, India, Bangladesh and Turkey has made the headlines.

But, he claimed, despite these few notable exceptions, most brokers and breakers were still actively blocking moves that would improve conditions for the workers and the environment, in pursuit of the highest possible profit margin.

Peter Hinchliffe of the International Chamber of Shipping defended the industry's honour, giving examples of concrete improvements and highlighting a code of conduct requiring newly-built ships to carry a 'green passport' which listed what had been used in their construction along with special instructions for the safe removal of hazardous components.

While shipping ran the risk of being demonised, he said, it was impossible to imagine world trade without a sizeable fleet plying the shipping routes and recycling still remained the most sustainable way to deal with hulks once they became redundant.

He also said the recycling industry needed to carry its share of the responsibility and that governments in the host nations needed to take a lead in ensuring the rights of their workers and protecting the environment.

Changes in legislation affecting single-hull oil tankers will also mean that the coming years will see a glut of ships reaching the end of their working lives and a solution must be found to deal with them.

Scuttling ships that had been stripped of hazardous waste and using them as artificial reefs to attract marine life as well as the divers' dollar was also discussed as an option, but it was recognised that while this had potential to regenerate the economy in some coastal areas as well as providing an oasis of biodiversity it did not provide a solution for more than a fraction of the fleet sailing towards the scrap yards.

Marius van der Stoel of the Netherlands-based green scrapping facilities Ecodock argued the economic case for regulated, high-tech recycling of redundant ships, claiming a global network of yards using state-of-the-art methods could reduce the cost of transporting ships half way round the world to be dismantled as well as mitigating potential costs that might arise in the future associated with environmental remediation and workers' claims for compensation and health care.

But by the end of a robust debate it was clear that while nobody has all the answers to this difficult problem, it is no longer acceptable to ignore it in the hopes that it will go away.

By Sam Bond



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