“In 2015, we counted a total of 768 vessels – container ships, bulkers, chemical, oil and gas tankers, passenger ships but also more and more oil and drilling rigs – that were sold for demolition. Compared to the last years, in which we have seen more than 1000 end-of-life vessels scrapped annually, 2015 meant a reduction. However, this is not a sign of a change in practices: in the second half of 2015, the prices offered for end-of-life vessels were very low mainly due to low steel prices, so that many ship owners, brookers and cash buyers withheld obsolete tonnage. Already in the first quarter of 2016, the figures are back on the rise. And in 2015, again 73% of all old ships – in terms of tonnage scrapped – ended up on the beaches of South Asia rather than in modern ship recycling facilities.
The debate in 2015 has been dominated by one big question: can a beaching yard, where a ship is broken down directly on the sand, in the unprotected intertidal zone, become a clean and safe ship recycling yard? Many business stakeholders quickly answer this question with yes. Amongst them are, of course, the shipbreaking yards from South Asia themselves who want to see their industry portrayed in a green light rather than being criticised for dirty and dangerous practices. But also the cash buyers, that is, the intermediaries to whom most ship owners sell their old vessels before the last voyage, have long started to promote their services as “green”or “ethical”. They are afraid that their customary business model, which is based on maximising profits for ship owners and themselves by selling off to those yards offering the highest prices – and these are often those with the lowest standards – will repel more and more responsible shipping companies. The green washing ship recycling practice is in full swing, while none amongst the major cash buyers stopped working with the worst yards when it brings good money.
Last but not least, more and more ship owners have discovered the concept of ‘upgraded’ beaching for themselves. It is a very convenient solution: whereas improving the conditions incrementally in beaching yards without ever reaching the top level does not entail substantial investments and can be done comparatively quickly, the profits generated stay high. If only beaching yards were recognised as “green”, ship owners could continue externalisting costs for proper recycling to low-cost beaching yards without having to bother about critical journalists, researchers, policy-makers, the courts or NGOs. But why do we not buy in to this seemingly easy solution that would allow Indian, and eventually Bangladeshi and Pakistani beaching yards, into the circle of approved ship recyclers?
We believe that the intertidal beaching method is a dead end. Ship dismantling is an industrial activity that needs industrial methods, equipment and standards. A beach is not an appropriate place for a high-risk heavy industry involving hazardous waste management. Beach locations and intertidal zone operations cannot close all the gaps to ensure safe operations and full containment of pollutants. What is needed is a clear departure from the unnecessarily risky activity of managing reverse logistics of ship material management on a beach and a relocation of ship recycling to platforms that can ensure sustainable practices. Beaching is an archaic method which environmental experts have said needs to be phased-out and that Chinese and European law has banned. We believe that both workers and the environment all around the world have the same right to full protection – and that countries whose industries are developing such as India or Bangladesh do more harm than good to themselves by believing that they cannot operate on a more ambitious level. They can.”