In 2016, 86% of the world’s end-of-life vessels were broken up under rudimentary conditions on Asian beaches. To many ship owners, ‘beaching’ is an inexpensive means of recycling a marine vessel. But it comes at a steep cost to the environment and human life: in the same year, 52 deaths on south Asian beaches were reported, with real figures feared much higher.
The International Labour Organisation recently named shipbreaking as the most dangerous job in the world, and ship owners and recycling firms are under pressure to take responsibility.
During the past decade, governments and global organisations have introduced many measures to address the health and environmental issues of unregulated shipbreaking. The US Navy, for example, responded to criticisms over beaching by banning the export of ships for scrapping in 1997, with the Maritime Administration following suit in 1998.
In 2013, the EU introduced the Ship Recycling Regulation to effectively ban shipbreaking on beaches, by requiring vessels sailing under a member state’s flag to be recycled at an EU-approved facility. But there is a loophole in the legislation because international maritime law enables ship owners to swap their ship’s country flag for an alternative country outside the EU, often via a quick cash transaction.
On a global level, the Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships was introduced in 2009 to ensure that ship owners and UN member states do not pose a risk to human health, safety and the environment when recycling marine vessels.
But this regulation does not ban beaching, which is blamed for most shipbreaking accidents and fatalities. As the Convention requires 15 member states and 40% of world merchant shipping to ratify, it is unlikely to come into force in the near future. The result is the continued beaching of ships in unregulated facilities, polluting the environment and risking lives.
Due to the structural complexity of marine vessels, shipbreaking is a multi-faceted process. As well as the risks associated with metal cutting, elevated work and operating heavy machinery, the dismantling process can also expose workers to hazardous materials. These can include asbestos found in gaskets, insulation and valve packing; polychlorinated biphenyls in cables, rubber products and paint; and toxic heavy metals in paint or coatings.
There needs to be greater transparency over what happens to a ship at the end of its life and the recycling process. Exploring new ways to encourage ship owners to recycle their ships responsibly will go a long way to preventing ships being broken down on beaches.
Safe shipbreaking in the US
EMR has invested heavily in its shipbreaking facilities, and established quality control procedures and best management practices to ensure that regulatory compliant, environmentally sound methods are followed. Employee safety is the number one priority across its shipbreaking sites in Brownsville, Texas; New Orleans; and Amelia, Louisiana. The ultimate aim is to elevate ship recycling so that sites are not regarded as poorly regulated scrapyards but places that are safe, efficient and rewarding to work at.
Responsible ship recycling requires extensive planning and constant safety considerations. Before submitting a bid to recycle a ship, a lot of work goes into assessing the vessel to create a bespoke recycling plan. If the bid is successful, further sampling is carried out to complete the environmental assessment when the ship arrives at the recycling facility.
Specialist hazmat teams wearing protective equipment remove hazardous materials and fire hazards, and then cold cut/break and drain all pipes/equipment containing fuel. Before hot work can start, each section is assessed and awarded a permit once declared safe. The ship-cutting process can only begin once all the assessments have been carried out and hazardous substances are extracted.
Chris Green is regional manager at EMR Group