There are serious concerns about how the shipping industry is disposing of its toxic waste during the process of shipbreaking: the way an old ship is disposed of, being broken up for scrap recycling. Most vessels have a lifespan of a few decades before they need to be retired; beaching is the most commonly used method to do this, as it is employed by 95 per cent of shipbreaking yards. Beaching is the deliberate crashing of a vessel onto a beach so that it can be dismantled during low tide. However, this method is the most controversial way to dismantle old ships because of its overall lack of containment of toxic waste. Unfortunately, it also is the most commonly used method in South Asia. Here workers break up giant vessels by hand, often leading to deaths, injuries, explosions and chemical spillages, as well as contamination of the beaches and waters around the breaking yards and destruction of coastal mangrove forests.
Now, thankfully, the process of dismantling end-of-life vessels is under scrutiny in this region. The lack of enforcement of environmental and safety legislation along with low labor costs, including poor working conditions, child labor and environmental damage is under criticism by regulators and pressure groups. Today, three countries monopolize global shipbreaking activities: Pakistan, India and, most notably, Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, the shipbreaking industry is highly competitive. According to the World Bank, Bangladesh alone is expected to have 79,000 tonnes of asbestos and 240,000 tonnes of cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) chemicals “dumped” on it by rich country’s ships in the next 20 years.
In Turkey and China, there are somewhat more stringent environmental and safety regulations; those countries account for approximately 25 per cent of shipbreaking activities. Europe and North America follow the strictest social and environmental regulations, using the most sustainable methods. Yet their capacity is underutilized as profit margins for ship owners are higher if the vessel is sold to a developing country.
Meanwhile, the European Parliament will begin to impose penalties on European Union ship owners who send their vessels for dismantling in the developing world, reflecting its toughening stance on contentious shipbreaking activities. Pressure from stakeholders is increasing, resulting in reputational risks for companies. Banks that have financed controversial shipbreaking actions have now also been become targets. Some companies have already committed to ending beaching and adopting best practices, but the vast majority continue to send their end-of-life vessels to South Asia to be dismantled using these provocative methods.
These regulations and action might not be enough to stop shipbreaking in south Asia because in these developing countries it is regarded as a lucrative industry, supplying a substantial quantity of scrap steel for their iron and steel industries, where nearly every part of the ship is recycled. At the end of the day, it all comes down to money.