Ship recycling in Whitehall spotlight

The tricky issue of what to do with ships once they reach the end of their working life is up for discussion in the corridors of power.

Defra has issued draft guidance on what it believes could be done to encourage more and better recycling of redundant hulks and is asking for the views of those involved in the industry or simply interested in the issues.

While the department's figures suggest that up to 95% of any given ship can be reused or recycled, there are international concerns over the health, safety and environmental standards in ship breaking yards, particularly in the developing world.

International negotiations looking to set out legally binding standards are ongoing but are unlikely to bear fruit for some time.

In the interim, the UK appears to have had a pang on conscience and is looking to set up its own standards, which will govern the disposal of British ships, including warships owned by the Government.

The move follows the farce of the Clemenceau, where the French Government was left with egg on its face after being forced to go back on its plans to dispose of the giant aircraft carrier in India, following NGO protests over toxic materials still on board the ship (see related story).

Ben Bradshaw, Local Environmental Quality Minister, said that the status quo was not working and that in the absence of effective international rules, the UK has a responsibility to do more to secure sustainable ship-recycling practices.

"Significant changes must be made if Government-owned and commercial ships are to be recycled in acceptable conditions, this certainly isn't a given," he said.

"In some developing countries for example, workers can be exposed to an extremely dangerous work environment, with high accident rates in poorly regulated yards.

"Poor conditions can also lead to significant pollution of the local environment where recycling takes place. It is unacceptable for us to simply ignore this.

"Until an internationally recognised regime for recycling vessels is in force, we need to be clear on the standards we expect, and indeed lead the way by making sure that Government-owned vessels are dealt with to standards we would expect in our own country."

Around 30 British warships are expected to be decommissioned over the next seven years, while approximately 100 EU flagged commercial ships need to be recycled every year.

Defra's draft proposals are a mixture of promoting better conditions for workers, environmental protection and covering the Government's back.

They call for new guidance on the sale or recycling of Government-owned vessels which would require the new owners to take full responsibility for their safe disposal and suggest ships should only be sold to those prepared to recycle them in facilities that meet acceptable standards.

The draft also attempts to clear up the legal ambiguity over whether ships qualify as toxic waste under the international Basel Convention and looks at the fuzzy legal situation for UK ship owners wishing to import or export vessels.

It recommends that more recycling facilities should be built globally to lift pressure on established breakers and also argues for the upgrading of existing yards.

The consultation document is available online, on the Defra website.

Sam Bond



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