Maritime Executive – Shipbreaking at a crossroads

(Written by Wendy Laursen)

Download the original article

September/October 2012 – The million-dollar question: Will the IMO’s Hong Kong Convention improve the safety and environmental performance of the shipbreaking industry in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh? The question is academic. No states have ratified the convention, and entry into force is anticipated to be 10 years away, after many of the world’s most asbestos-laden ships have already been broken and recycled. There is a Norwegian saying that describes the situation, says Ingvild Jenssen of NGO Shipbreaking Platform, a coalition of environmental, human and labor rights organizations. It is a “sleeping pillow.” It allows everyone to say “We are doing something” without really doing anything.

The 2009 Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships addresses concerns about environmentally hazardous substances like asbestos and labor conditions at many of the world’s shipbreaking yards. Pending its approval, there are voluntary transitional guidelines that call for shipowners to undertake an Inventory of Hazardous Materials (IHM) and to only use shipbreakers that prepare a shipspecific breaking plan and, ideally, a yard plan that demonstrates they can meet safety and environmental protection goals. Some shipowners follow the guidelines, some do not. Few breaking yards have a yard plan.

The Hong Kong Convention was enacted as a means of providing something more suited to the shipping industry than the United Nations’ Basel Convention, which entered into force in 1992 to prevent the dumping of hazardous waste on developing countries. Under the Basel Convention, it is the exporters’ responsibility to ensure that hazardous wastes are dealt with in an environmentally sound and safe manner and ships with toxic waste cannot be imported to a party state, such as India, from a non-party state, such as the U.S. Following the Basel Convention to the letter would mean that ships would have to be partially dismantled before being towed to a breaking yard.

Cash buyers

Many shipowners sell vessels ready to be scrapped to cash buyers, who then sell to the breaking yard. These buyers know the market better than most shipowners, who at the same time can divest any responsibility for toxic materials since cash buyers often reflag and rename the vessel for the final voyage. Again, there can be legitimate reasons for doing this, such as facilitating a crew change, and some flags offer discounts for final voyages. But it also means that the vessel can be reflagged to a state that is not party to the Basel Convention or not particularly diligent in policing hazardous materials’ requirements.

The Hong Kong Convention is considered minimal at best by environmental and labor groups. It doesn’t condemn the dismantling of ships on beaches as is done in South Asia (Bangladesh, India and Pakistan), a practice not considered safe for the environment as pollution cannot be contained. From a worker-safety perspective, the use of cranes and ambulances is severely limited. Workers are routinely injured or killed by explosions or exposure to hazardous substances.

“In 2011, 28 workers got killed at Alang beach due to the criminal callousness of shipowners, shipbreakers, Gujarat Maritime Board, Gujarat Pollution Control Board, Ministry of Environment and Forests, and other concerned agencies,” says Gopal Krishna, spokesman for Toxics Watch Alliance and the Ban Asbestos Network of India. “The inquiries into such deaths are never made public.” More than 10,000 migrant workers at Alang, where half the world’s ships are scrapped, come from some of India’s poorest and most technologically backward states, including Bihar and Jharkhand. Krishna likens their plight to slavery. “I come from that area and I know exactly the situation they are in,” he says. “They are forced into a dirty, degrading, dangerous job because of poverty.” Shipowners are escaping their decontamination costs by transferring the risk to vulnerable workers, he says.

The workers are not aware of hazardous materials like asbestos and more often than not use primitive tools to dismantle the ships, says Mohit Gupta, Coordinator of the Occupational and Environmental Network of India. “Protective equipment is seldom provided or used. Asbestos fibres removed are either dumped on site or sold in the scrap market.”

However, there have been some attempts at improving health and safety in the industry, he says. The courts have stopped a few ships containing hazardous materials from entering Indian waters. “Some attempts have also been made to improve the situation on the ground, but not much. During a recent visit to Alang by one of our network members, we could observe separate cabins built for removal of asbestos. One can observe helmets and gloves being used, which is a start, but much more effort needs to be made.”

Improving worker safety

“There is large-scale adverse publicity without any justification,” says Pravin Nagarseth, President of the Shipbreaking Association of India. “The issue is not environmental but is related to occupational hazards. Only to sensationalize has the undue hue-andcry of environmental pollution been created. In-built hazardous waste is not even one percent of the total weight of the ship and therefore does not merit classification of a scrap ship as being hazardous. Even the Basel Convention has not declared ships for demolition as hazardous waste.” The ship recycling industry is not hazardous as claimed by NGOs, he argues: “The issue of PCBs, asbestos and TBT paint are a temporary phenomenon as their use is already banned.”

Nagarseth says the requirements of the 2007 Supreme Court order are being fully complied with, bringing accident rates down substantially. Recent modernization means plate-loading is mostly being done by cranes rather than manually, and a number of plot holders have installed liquid oxygen tanks to reduce the use of oxygen cylinders. A secured landfill site has been constructed at Alang for the disposal and treatment of hazardous wastes, and an additional landfill site and bilge-water treatment facility are under construction.

Trade unions have organized over 9,800 workers in India and achieved improved levels of first aid, education, wages and compensation. However, concedes Kan Matsuzaki, spokesman for IndustriALL Global Union, since the industry is heavily labor-intensive, health and safety equipment costs a lot: “When one company or one local region has decided to strengthen the
regulations, which costs, the jobs move to other companies or regions where the regulation is relatively low.”

Some cash buyers are trying to make a difference. GMS, the world’s largest, has contributed to the operational improvement and ISO certification of nine ship-recycling facilities in Bangladesh. Grieg Green of Norway works with yards in China to help them meet Hong Kong Convention requirements as well as the company’s own, more stringent standards. Grieg Green does not support beach-breaking and instead offers shipowners a service where they, as cash buyer, will ensure high levels of safety and environmental performance from the yards they use in Turkey and China. This includes on-site supervision and also inspection of the waste-handling companies that the yard uses. Gearbulk is one shipowner that has taken up this approach with a vessel recently dismantled at Zhongxin Shipbreaking & Steel.

Total global demolition rates are increasing and are expected to triple in the next 25 years. If beach-breaking were stopped, it is unlikely there would be enough breaking capacity. Clarksons’ August report notes court activity in India that could see the entry of ships not complying with the Basel Convention banned but states that any effect is likely to be less severe than feared as vessels are still entering the country: “The situation is fluid and if Indian activity was halted, China, with a self-professed, government-backed policy of promoting green recycling, could stand to benefit.”

Interim measures

DNV has performed a number of yard assessments in China at the request of shipowners, showing variable results. DNV has also established over 100 hazardous materials’ inventories (IHM) for vessels in operation and vessels ready to be scrapped and approved hundreds of IHMs for newbuildings. For newbuildings, the IHM is largely a paper exercise based on material declarations, but for existing vessels it involves onboard inspection and material analysis, and there are practical limits to what is identifiable. “Without such documentation as an IHM, there is no way you can do a proper, environmentally sound scrapping. It is certainly a prerequisite but largely depends on whether the yards are using it or not, which is yet unknown in many cases,” says Kjetil Martinsen, principal surveyor and engineer for DNV.

Rather than just being a legacy from ships built in the 1970s and 1980s, asbestos use in the marine industry is still alive and well, says Dr. Patrick Morton, Managing Director of Lucion Environmental, a specialist in identification and removal of hazardous materials. It is not necessarily high-risk like some pipe insulation and spray coatings, but it may not be evident, even from manufacturer documentation, as in some countries a product can contain up to 15 percent asbestos before it needs to be labelled as such. However, products such as fibre gaskets and floor tiles are unlikely to present a serious risk if managed correctly. Sometimes asked to provide an asbestos-free certificate for ships, Morton
says it is unlikely that a vessel is going to be totally asbestos-free:
“It’s all about a spectrum of risk.”

As well as performing IHM assessments for older vessels, Morton is finding that shipowners are increasingly looking at the risks involved in their in-service vessels. Sometimes the surprising results from an older vessel prompt them to review the safety of the whole fleet. Will IHMs make a difference to breaking yards? Like Martinsen, Morton is not sure: “Unlike the built environment, you can send a ship from one place to another and the seller has the choice of where to send it, so there is that everpresent moral obligation.”


As part of interim measures before the Hong Kong Convention enters into force, BIMCO has developed a standard contract for the sale of vessels for green recycling, code-named RECYCLECON. A small but growing number of shipowners are looking to dispose of their ships in a safe and environmentally responsible manner, says the organization. The contract provides shipowners and recycling yards with a commercial solution that mirrors many of the features of the Convention. For Aron Frank Sørensen, BIMCO’s Chief Marine Technical Officer, both the Hong Kong Convention and the Basel Convention have their place: “The best practical solution for us would be that you have the Hong Kong Convention to bring the ship to the yard and then what happens ashore after dismantling of the ship is Basel territory. That is something that the IMO is not able to regulate. IMO normally regulates ships and not what happens at the shore side. Once the vessel is in the yard, it is regulated by the local regulations in the country itself.”