Tradewinds – Ship recycling ‘beach holiday’ is over – by Jim Puckett

(Written by Jim Puckett)

21 March 2014 - The practice of beaching end-of-life ships can never satisfy tougher European regulations despite the breakers snatching up ‘green paint’ and washing themselves as new and improved. The logical place to reverse engineer ships is in docks, and the future belongs to those who understand this, writes Jim Puckett, executive director, Basel Action Network

Remarkably, today’s shipping industry is the last major manufacturing and service sector that has been able to ignore environmental and social concerns at the end-of-life of its products and services.

The principle of extended producer responsibility that calls for manufacturers to take responsibility for products even after sale and deployment seems not to have as yet extended to ships and shipping. Instead of the stewardship ethic now established in law and policy seen today in the automotive, aviation and electronics industries, when a ship reaches its end-of-life, all thought is simply given to maximising profit — while minimising environmental and social protections to do so. It is an economic holiday for the shipowners but far from such a holiday for the labourers and the environment.

Beaching is harmful

Indeed, one cannot imagine a more harmful way to manage a worn and aged ship — containing, as they do, hazardous materials, such as asbestos, mercury, toxic paint, oily residues and PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl)-impregnated materials — than to run it up onto a beach and have it cut up with torches and saws, chisels and hammers wielded by impoverished, unprotected and, often underage, workers. It is convenient — yes, dirt-cheap; yes, legal (maybe) — but safe and sustainable? Not on your life.

Recent spotlighting of shipbreaking horrors as practised in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh have led to increasing condemnation recently manifesting itself in the new European Ship Recycling Regulation (SRR). In response, the shipbreaking moguls have snatched up “green paint” and washed themselves as new and improved. They have hung their walls and websites with ISO certificates and awards. They have cribbed the jargon of sustainability and peppered their pitches with it. They have bought some easy fixes — doling out protective equipment, tidying up the yard, screening against child labour and sometimes bringing in more cranes and winches.

They believe that by these efforts they can convince the European Union (EU) that they meet the bar when the European Commission (EC) divides their world into two lists — the green and the black.

‘Built structures’ required

While never prohibiting “beaching” the EU regulation requires operations to be “built structures” and to manage all hazardous materials over impermeable barriers. These are impossibilities in an intertidal zone and it is difficult to see European lawmakers seeing it otherwise.

More importantly, though, will be the views of shipowners, their customers and their investors, who will increasingly scrutinise the South Asian beaches through the lens of corporate social responsibility. Responsible brands will readily understand the four fundamental reasons why a beach can never serve as an intelligent place to manage the world’s largest known units of hazardous waste.

Firstly, for the foreseeable future, ship recycling means hazardous waste management. In developed countries it is forbidden to build a hazardous waste-management facility in a 100-year flood plain. Yet a beach represents a daily flood. One can never, due to the constant action of waves and tides, create an impermeable surface over which a ship can be safely cut up without leakage.

Secondly, we are talking about a hazardous industrial activity in a unique coastal zone, globally recognised as a sensitive and vital area serving as fish nursery, habitat for waterfowl and wetlands or mangrove buffers against typhoons. Coastal-zone management laws recognise the natural capital of this unique zone and now provide for multi-stakeholder decision making. Fishing communities will not accept such polluting industries in the coastal zone.

Thirdly, beaches do not allow for a stable permanent foundation to erect and operate a near-ship crane that can allow for the safe lifting and removal of cut steel blocks, barrels of asbestos, PCB-laden materials or large recyclables. Cranes avoid blocks from simply falling into the sea and also prevent heavy and dangerous hand lifting by workers.

Finally, for similar reasons, the shifting intervening sands and tides prevent emergency equipment, ambulances and firefighting equipment from readily accessing the workforce, and impedes the ability to extinguish fires.

The care and attention that is brought to the beginning of the life cycle of ships needs to be applied to the end of a ship’s life. The logical place to reverse engineer a ship is the same place they are built — docks (dry and wet). This is the future of ship recycling and it will likely come far sooner than the industry can presently comprehend. As with all change, those with vision will profit and those that cling to the past will wither. Make no mistake, the beach holiday is over.