End of life ships reclassified as toxic waste to end scrapping in developing world

The practice of sending ships to under equipped yards in the developing world for scrapping was dealt a serious blow this week when an international convention ruled that end-of-life ships should be considered as toxic waste and as such, be banned from export under the terms of the Basel Convention.

The Basel Convention was signed in 1995 banning the export of hazardous wastes, including for recycling, from developed (or OECD) countries to developing (or non-OECD) countries.

However, the spirit of this convention has long been flouted by the trade in end-of-life ships. These often contain substances such as asbestos, PCBs, toxic paints and oils known to damage human health and the environment. In addition, the presence of other substances, such as fuel or gases in tanks, increases the risks of explosion and other accidents, putting the safety of workers at risk (see related story).

Because the toxic chemical wastes are still part of the ship itself, the exporters felt they could exploit this loophole in the convention. Ship owners can make a profit of roughly US$2 million per ship using the cheap labour and lack of regulation that the developing world offers.

Developing world ship-yards rarely have the facilities, or legislation, to cope with their disposal and the practice can cause huge environmental degradation as well as major threats to human health. Many ships are literally dismantled on open beaches, leaving the toxic chemicals they contain to escape straight into the environment.

Now, however, the 163 parties to the Basel Convention must apply its rules to all ships destined for breaking. They must prohibit exports without the consent of recipient countries, must assure that ship-breaking is performed in an environmentally sound manner, and must minimise the trans-boundary movement of hazardous wastes.

The Conference of the Parties to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal also adopted technical guidelines on best practices for managing wastes containing PCBs, furans, dioxins, and other persistent organic pollutants, and released a ministerial statement setting out strategies for mobilising additional resources to address hazardous wastes.

The statement calls for strengthening of partnerships with industries and other international organisations and agreements, in particular the Rotterdam Convention on trade in hazardous chemicals and pesticides, and the Stockholm Convention on persistent organic pollutants.

The United States, Japan and some representatives of the shipping industry fought to block the decision arguing that end-of-life ships should not be considered waste, fearing a huge dent in profits if they have to pay for safe decontamination and disposal in the developed world.

Greenpeace described the decision as a major victory over the “shame of shipping”, and said that by explicitly declaring redundant ships as waste, the ship-sized loophole has been closed.

“This is a major step towards ensuring that the people and the environments of the world’s ship breaking countries no longer have to bear the burden of the shipping industry’s toxic trash,” said Marietta Harjono of Greenpeace.

It is expected that the decision will increase demands for decontamination of ships prior to export to countries such as India, Bangladesh and Turkey. It should also create new demand for ‘green’ ship recycling capacity in developed countries.

Thousands of ships are likely to need responsible disposal in the next few years as the EU regulations banning the use of single hulled tankers come into effect.

The lack of facilities for scrapping ships was highlighted in a case last year when the UK imported some American ships 4,000 miles across the sea to a scrapping plant in Teesside (see related story).

Critics argued that the US should have disposed of the ships at its own facilities rather than risk polluting the Atlantic and UK waters with their contents, and called for legal action to be taken against the Environment Agency (see related story).

News of the end-of-life ship import plan was particularly embarrassing for the UK government as it was found to be simultaneously exporting end-of-life Navy ships for scrapping in the developing world (see related story).

At the time, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence told edie that any transfer of former navy vessels would be done in compliance with all UK and European regulations.

By David Hopkins

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