Making Ship Recycling Work For All

TalentWorking conditionsSafety

Jonathan Brown, one of the three winners of the Future Maritime Leaders essay competition, argues that safe recycling incentives should be offered to shipowners and shipyards in an effort to improve recycling practices.

We are living in unprecedented times with the coronavirus pandemic changing the way everyone will live for the short term, if not forever. This has brought into sharper focus the need for change in daily life, and if we look at some of the most pressing humanitarian issues in the marine industry one stands above the rest – ship recycling.

Ship recycling is a major societal and environmental issue, but if improvements are made the industry could greatly contribute to a number of UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including those for decent work, good health and well-being, responsible consumption and production, life below water, and life on land. There continues to be a clear lack of responsibility within the industry for these issues and I believe widespread cultural and regulatory improvements could support these SDGs.

What damage is ship recycling already causing?

Ship recycling is notorious for being both dangerous and dirty. It continues to be one of the deadliest industries in the world with 398 deaths and 251 injuries since 2009 and an estimated 1,200 deaths since 1980.

Conditions and pay are horrendous, with employees typically working 12 – 16 hour days, seven days a week for pay as low as 35p an hour.

A recent survey of workers in India found that 43% of workers did not have access to suitable drinking water and only 30% of workers were satisfied with the safety equipment provided. Additionally, 52% of workers were injured within the last year at the workplace. There are also long term health impacts, stemming from hazardous materials left onboard such as asbestos, oil residues and other toxic materials. These can cause life-threatening conditions, impacting workers many years after being exposed.

If the health impacts were not severe enough to drive change, the industry also causes significant environmental damage. Due to vessels being beached and dismantled on the shore, pollution cannot be contained. Studies have shown that there are significantly higher concentrations of heavy metals than normal in the coastline surrounding recycling yards.

There are also atmospheric emissions and damage to land-based ecosystems. Research has shown that breaking methods cause significant CO2 emissions and the release of other harmful gases. Near the coast of Chattogram, approximately 60,000 mangrove trees have been cut down to allow for more space to beach vessels. This damages local ecosystems and also removes a barrier which reduces the damage from flooding and typhoons. Clearly, these adverse effects are rippling far further than the ship recycling sector itself, and significant change is required.

Do current measures go far enough?

There are measures which are trying to prevent this damage. The International Maritime Organisation’s (IMO) Hong Kong Convention aims to prevent this practice, but is yet to enter into force. The EU’s Ship Recycling regulation requires EU flagged ships to be recycled at a yard on the European List of Ship Recycling Facilities, with the aim to ensure safe practices. However, the industry still continues in Asia with 471 of the 674 ships being broken down on beaches in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in 2019.

Figure 1: 2019 ship recycling locations

A common problem with these regulations is the use of flags of convenience and the use of end of life flags. Many shipowners sell vessels to cash buyers who subsequently change the vessel’s flag to a common end of life flag with no recycling restrictions. There are a number of common end of life flags including Palau, Comoros and St Kitts & Nevis, with over 30% of the vessels being recycled in 2019 having one of these flags.

Figure 2: Ship owner nationality and flag states

The Hong Kong convention has been criticised for not going far enough to ensure that vessels are dismantled in a safe and environmentally sound manner. There have also been concerns about the yards which have been issued Statements of Compliance (SoC) with findings suggesting that the SoCs are not a guarantee that the requirements are being met.

So how can the maritime industry prevent this practice?

If significant improvements could be made it could greatly contribute to the SDGs previously mentioned above. The direction of the EU regulation has made progress, however more widespread change needs to be made to this industry’s culture to ensure that people are put before profit.

Regulations need to go even further. Clearly, in their current state, they do not enforce sustainable and safe recycling and thus must be amended to prevent workarounds such as end of life flags and inaccurate SoCs. However, due to the requirements for entry into force, an international regulation may still be years away.

Initially, an incentive for safe recycling could be offered to encourage owners to use safe facilities. Alternatively, an international maritime fund could be created, offering financial incentives to yards to improve recycling practices. In the long term, continued compliance must be ensured, potentially independent of SoCs. This could be enforced through an IMO Approved Ship Recyclers list utilising independent auditors and a reporting mechanism open to all parties, such as workers and local communities, to raise concerns on practices. This could incorporate a system similar to the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre allowing round the clock reporting of incidents or breaches.

The industry needs to force accountability onto shipowners. This is an area which is not currently successful, with negative publicity and regulations not changing the behaviour of shipowners. The Global Maritime Forum could be a platform in which to drive a cultural change with shipowners, starting through its publications, forums and through the support of the forum’s industry partners.

Ultimately, accountability and reflection only go so far. To truly move the maritime industry forward, we must make change now. As the 2019 Global Maritime Forum concluded, we need “collaboration and bold leadership to meet new societal demands”. Nothing should be more valuable than the safety and well-being of our industry’s workers. We must work together to ensure that everyone has the right to fair pay, fair conditions and a healthy planet for the future.

Jonathan Brown is a 25-year-old Graduate Naval Architect from the UK and working at BAE Systems Naval Ships.