The future of shipbreaking: The societal impact of offshore companies

In less than a month we will be looking back at an unprecedented and entangled year that has put our humanity to test. In a year marked by toilet paper panic buying, lockdowns, elbow-bump salutes, and online classes – we have put a breather on global issues such as pollution. 

The ongoing pandemic has brought an array of restrictions resulting in devastating hits in many industries – one of them is the cruise industry. The decision of the new no-sail order has been willingly adopted by many cruise companies, which sparked the ship breaking industry. 

Ship recycling or shipbreaking –an industry that deals with the process of deconstructing decommissioned and permanently retired ships for the function potentiating re-use of its materials – serves as a dominant supplier of steel and a crucial part of South Asian economies. A ship is demolished when the maintenance costs overstep the profits that the vessel makes. The shipbreaking industry functions inversely to the global economy. The industry serves as a crucial contributor to the circular economy – which aims to reduce waste and recycle matter infinitely. However, the process of shipbreaking has a dangerous environmental and societal impact due to its underdeveloped nature and the practice of “beaching”. 

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The process of shipbreaking begins with beaching the ship during a high tide, then in a low tide people physically remove parts of the ship, cutting them down with gas torches and separating the materials. Ship dismantling meets many features of recycling, but due to its harmful environmental effects, it is hardly ever associated with recycling. Until the 1970s the majority of ship recycling was in Europe and the US, but when the laws and regulations became rigid the industry moved east where legal frameworks are feebler. Today, only a fraction of end-of-life ships are managed in a secure and clean nature. Since the 1980s, there have been great efforts and initiatives to combat environmental issues that come with ship breaking but the results were poor because slaloming through regulations was easy. Introduction of new internationally binding laws and regulations is a slow process and putting them on the radar is even slower. 

95% of ships are recycled in South Asia due to low-cost of labour and because environmental regulations and labour safety regulations are minimal to non-existent. 

In 2015, 78% of ocean-going vessels were demolished on beaches, with European corporations owning one-third of the ships. The environmental flaw of beaching is the millions of litres of oil, toxic paints, and other liquids being released into the ocean and environment, eventually disrupting the flow of biodiversity, flora, and fauna. 

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The moderate progress, and specifically the moderate passage into force, of global conventions, has caused tension particularly in some non-governmental organizations (NGO). For instance, in 2005 a gathering of three NGOs; Greenpeace, Federation for Human Rights, and Young Power in Social Action created a report about the labour and ecological conditions in the Chittagong shipbreaking facility in Bangladesh. The report shows the dangers that the workers and the environment are in exposed to. In Bangladesh, a worker is killed every week and one harmed every day. These and a large number of other far and wide pictures from the South Asian ship recycling facilities may have had more impact on the advancement of the business lately than the ceaseless political discussion.

Nevertheless, there has been progress in the past twenty years in the HSE standards, but it is still two steps behind the EU standards. Training and education are still far from existent so the workers are left in the dark about the dangers of ship recycling. Unfortunately, keeping the workers unaware of the risks has been a key for making this industry profitable for the past three decades. It has come down to that only a strong regulatory approach will bring change. 

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The upcoming European List – an EU policy aimed at making ship breaking cleaner and greener for European ships – is targeting to ensure that all ships flying an EU member state flag will be dismantled in places on the European List. The European Commission will also issue instructions for shipbreaking facilities on moving hazardous material and protecting the environment from spills, which will be expected to comply to a myriad of requirements to preserve the environmental and societal impact.

The environmental impact of shipbreaking could be improved with some adjustments in the system, such as ship owners paying fees all throughout the vessel’s life, which would, in the end, be spent on appropriate breaking in a facility with proper conditions, instead of beaching. This fee – which could serve as something like pensions for ships – could then turn into a necessity for a ship to be in any harbour to guarantee supportable practices on an international level.

Lastly, one thing is certain, if the environmental and societal issues are left to individuals, the change might never happen. The solution comes down to strong international regulations with the help of individuals that can volunteer and contribute to minimizing the negative impacts of the industry. Given the blurry nature of the sector, the quantitative search is quite hard because it is common that various regulations are avoided and extensive statistics are not easily accessible. 

Given the complex nature of the industry, many components remain foggy, but it is clear that it has more downsides than positive aspects. For the environmental and societal impact to remain preserved, internationally binding regulations will bring control to the industry and a modernization of the facilities and practices, including the perspective of labour’s safety.

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