Tradewinds – Green recycling? It’s all up to you

(Written by Jonathan Boonzaier)

13 March 2013 - It is estimated that only 20% of tonnage sent for demolition is recycled at green facilities that meet the strict standards of the Hong Kong Convention, with the rest going to yards that don’t. Ultimately, shipowners hold the key to responsible scrapping worldwide, but little will change if the majority continue to emphasise money over the environment, writes Jonathan Boonzaier in Singapore

The shipbreaking, or ship-recycling, industry, as players in the game now like to refer to it, has been under enourmous pressure in recent years to clean up its environmental act.

Pressure has been mounting not only on yards but also on shipowners. For now, however, the choice remains in the hands of the latter in deciding how and where their vessels will be recycled.

A great clear-out of obsolete tonnage is under way, with dozens of unwanted bulkers, containerships, tankers and just about every other type of tonnage arriving at yards in the world’s main ship-recycling regions in the Indian subcontinent, China and Turkey every week.

Plenty of legislation covers, or is about to cover, the procedures surrounding selling ships for scrap. In 1989, the Basel Convention, designed to shield developing countries from being used as dumping grounds for toxic waste, came into being.

Two decades later, a more shipping-industry-specific set of requirements was drafted in the form of the Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships (Hong Kong Convention).

While this convention has many signatories, it has yet to be ratified and come into force. This is unlikely to happen anytime soon, according to industry experts who attended the TradeWinds Ship Recycling Forum in Dubai last week. India and Bangladesh would have to sign up, but they are reluctant to do so given the ramifications the convention would have on their ship-recycling industries.

The European Union (EU), unhappy with the delays in ratifying the Hong Kong Convention, is proposing its own set of regulations but it may be a while before they become law as the jurisdiction and proposals are still a matter of hot debate.

Meanwhile, despite the lack of concrete regulations, many “green” recycling facilities have been set up around the world, while existing players have invested heavily in cleaning up their act. There is, experts say, more than enough capacity at these facilities to meet global demand to recycle ships in an environmentally responsible manner.

Yet it is estimated that only 20% of the tonnage being sold for demolition is recycled at these green yards. The rest go to facilities that do not meet the more stringent environmental standards of the Hong Kong Convention.

The reason for this is simply money. There are owners who have corporate environmental policies that require ships to be recycled in a responsible way, even though they may receive less cash at the end of the day. Then there are owners who only care about squeezing as much cash as possible out of a tired old hull, no matter what the consequences for the environment.

As has been the case for so many years, the key for the time being still remains in shipowners’ hands.