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Ship recycling: a silver lining in a stormy sky

A total of 763 ocean-going commercial ships and floating offshore units were sold to scrap yards in 2021, the NGO Shipbreaking Platform reports. ‘Of these, 583 of the largest tankers, bulkers, floating platforms, cargo- and passenger ships ended up on the beaches of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan,’ the watchdog says.

Ship owners have long been aware of the lack of capacity to safely handle the many toxic materials on board vessels at shipbreaking yards, argues organisation founder Ingvild Jenssen. ‘Yet, with the help of scrap dealers, the vast majority choose to scrap their end-of-life fleet in South Asia as that is where they can make the highest profits.’

90% beached

When asked whether the volume of beached ships has been going down in recent years, she says little has changed. ‘Unfortunately not – the three South Asian beaches still dismantle 90% of the global end-of-life tonnage.’ The United Arab Emirates sent 60 ships for recycling, while Singapore decommissioned 45, and South Korea took 35 vessels out of service. Both the US and Greece sent 41 ships to the scrap yard. Some are still being processed. See graph below for the bigger picture.

Jenssen tells Recycling International that approximately a third of the tonnage scrapped there originates from EU-based shipping companies. ‘Decisions to scrap are often taken in offices in Hamburg, Athens, Antwerp, Copenhagen and other shipping hubs. There is a need to introduce legislation that holds the beneficial owners of vessels accountable.’

Meanwhile, the pandemic ‘pushed’ especially the cruise sector, which saw tourism come to a halt practically overnight, to scrap more vessels. Nine in total were decommissioned. Most were scrapped in India, followed by Turkey and Pakistan. One cruise ship was supposed to be dismantled in Italy, but the deal fell through.

‘Exciting developments’

There are signs that the tide is turning. ‘Examples of companies doing a good job include Galloo in Belgium, DDR in Spain and AFDecom in Norway – just to mention three,’ Jenssen notes. ‘There are also exciting developments in the Netherlands and Scotland, where new yards are being established, such as the Blue Decom in Amsterdam and Atlas Decommissioning at the Inchgreen Drydock.’ Also, a new yard in Germany, run by Leviathan, will offer a sustainable solution for ship owners.

‘I am optimistic that new policies on Green Deals and circular economy will prompt a renewed interest for responsible ship recycling across Europe,’ she comments. ‘Steel producers will, for example, be needing secondary raw materials to be able to reduce their carbon footprint.’

Besides Europe, Jenssen observes new opportunities are also being explored in the Middle East and South Africa. ‘These modern-day yards will be operating from dry-docks and thus be able to contain pollutants. Moving the sector away from tidal beaches is a necessary step.’

She reasons that ships are built, maintained and repaired throughout their operational life at dry-docks. ‘There are good reasons for why similar infrastructure is needed at end-of-life as well, including remediation of spills and making sure that no heavy-metal laden paints are released to the sea.’

Fatal injuries

Based on official 2021 data, at least 14 workers have lost their lives when breaking apart vessels on the beach of Chattogram, Bangladesh, and another 34 were severely injured. Local sources also reported two deaths in Alang, India, and two deaths in Gadani, Pakistan. Jenssen believes that, in reality, the figures are probably higher, considering the shipbreaking industry is not exactly known for its transparency.

She points out that some of these accidents took place on vessels owned by well-known shipping companies, such as Berge Bulk, Nathalin Co, Polaris Shipping and Winson Oil.

‘We have launched a fundraising campaign to help the victims of unregulated shipbreaking in collaboration with new local partners in Bangladesh,’ says Sara Costa, project officer at the NGO Shipbreaking Platform. ‘Many workers suffer from cancers and other occupational diseases, due to the long-term exposure to asbestos and other hazardous substances. We hope the campaign will encourage people and companies to support us so that that proper medical treatment can be provided.’

Take-back scheme for ships?

Looking to the future, the NGO founder is cautiously optimistic. ‘As scrapping practices over the past ten years have shown, the vast majority of ship owners will however continue to ignore the conditions under which their vessels are broken as long as it provides them with extra profits,’ she recaps.

Therefore, legislators need to find ways of closing the gap. Jenssen suggests introducing a return scheme for ships funded by collecting recycling fees during the operational life of a vessel. It is also vital to hold companies criminally liable for the damage they cause to local communities and the coastal environments in South Asia.

Not least, investors also have a key role to play in increasing their ‘green investments’ to include supporting facilities that can offer infrastructure fit for a heavy and hazardous industry.

‘From our side, I can say that we intend to provide more visibility to solutions, including technical innovations for recycling operations, and insight into the circular material flow in the global shipping industry,’ Jenssen adds. ‘For instance, there is scope for real improvements at the design and building phase of ships to include recycling considerations.’

An article about ship recycling will be published in our upcoming issue!

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