(Written by Kirstin Linnenkoper)
1 September 2014 - Sustainable shipbreaking has ‘definitely been put on the agenda’, according to Patrizia Heidegger. An advocate for sustainable practices, she was the founder of the NGO Shipbreaking Platform – a coalition of 19 environmental and human/labour rights organisations working to prevent the dangerous pollution and unsafe working conditions associated with end-of-life ships. And she suggests from first-hand experience that the way some companies in this sector do business is best scrapped.
What first triggered your involvement in recycling?
I wanted to become a lot of different things: a translator, an art historian, a journalist. I remember one of the first demonstrations I attended was against the huge amounts of waste produced by fast-food chains – even as a teenager I was upset by the foolishness of such an unsustainable business model. I started volunteering for Amnesty International and had participated in work camps in India and Bangladesh on sustainable development when I realised “this is what I want to do”.
You have become an advocate for a more responsible and environment-friendly shipbreaking industry. Why is this cause so important to you?
After obtaining my Master’s degree, I volunteered for a human rights organisation in Bangladesh for more than a year. I fell in love with the country although it has become a dumping ground for the global shipping industry. Sadly, even today a great share of ship owners in Europe and East Asia leave the dirty job to countries like India or Bangladesh. I believe that sustainable development will only be a reality once some of the worst practices such as hazardous child labour, uncontrolled dumping of toxics and the destruction of essential ecosystems are stopped.
Can you share some of your personal experiences regarding shipbreaking?
The yards I’ve visited are not easily accessible to outsiders – in particular not for curious researchers or journalists. Most of the workers, a lot of them children, still go barefoot to break huge oil tankers on the beach and live in shacks built from plywood and other materials recovered from the ships. On the other hand, the wealthy shipbreaking yard owners discuss their business in splendid hotels, lamenting that they cannot afford substantial improvements for the workers and the environment while they make millions of dollars per old vessel sold. Sometimes I cannot believe how unjust the distribution of wealth in this world is and how easily we put up with it. I think that, ultimately, providing dangerous jobs to poor workers cannot be an excuse not to improve the conditions and break the circle of poverty and exploitation.
How has the shipbreaking sector changed over the last 10 years?
The Indian shipbreaking yards in Alang have been provided with a treatment, storage and disposal facility for hazardous wastes, and the government of Bangladesh has finally recognised shipbreaking as an industry that it needs to regulate. However, the large majority of end-of-life ships are still dismantled in sub-standard beaching yards, not in modern ship recycling facilities. There is still a long way to go to make this industry clean and safe.
In your opinion, what is curbing progress?
In the end, it is the ship owner who takes the decision when a ship is to be sold for demolition. It is up to him to decide whether he wants to have his ship recycled properly or whether profit comes first. The question is whether he is ready to compromise top dollar for green recycling. As long as ship owners are not obliged by the law and do not feel responsible for their end-of-life vessels, real change will be very difficult to achieve.
How can shipbreaking ultimately become sustainable?
We need international and regional regulation to implement the “polluter pays” principle for ship owners and their end-of-life vessels. In the automobile industry, the producers are responsible for clean and safe recycling. Yet the maritime industry is still allowed to push off responsibility and leave it to developing countries to deal with the demolition of their fleet. Ideally, there would be a financial incentive mechanism to encourage the sustainable scrapping of ships – comparable to the European Ship Recycling Fund, but implemented globally.
In an ideal world, what would the shipbreaking sector look like?
All ship owners would feel responsible for their fleet at end-of-life and demand safe and clean recycling using best practice methods – already demonstrated by progressive shipping companies. Ships would be built without using any hazardous building materials and designed in a way so they can recycled easily. There would be high safety standards for the industry. No worker would be exposed to toxics and dangerous working conditions and the maritime environment would not be harmed. In conclusion; ship recycling would be a fully “green” industry.
What do you like to do to relax?
I am passionate about mountains. Whenever I have the time I go hiking in the Alps, which is where I come from. Sitting on a mountain top makes the world look different and helps to put things back into perspective.
Can you share any future missions?
My mission this year is to convince more ship owners in both Europe and East Asia to commit to proper, clean and safe ship recycling of their end-of-life vessels.
What’s your final verdict?
If ship owners decide to go “green” with their ship recycling, change can come quickly.