Tradewinds – Vessel arrest highlights need to ratify Hong Kong Convention on ship recycling

(Written by Nikos Mikelis)

13 June 2014 - The detention of the Global Spirit in Antwerp shows that ship recycling must be regulated by common, global, practical and effective rules, writes GMS non-executive director Nikos Mikelis

The detention of the Liberian-flag, 45,500-dwt car-carrier Global Spirit (built 1987) in Antwerp last Friday following allegations by environmental activists that the ship was about to violate the European Union (EU)’s waste shipment regulation shows that European authorities still persist in enforcing an ineffective and counterproductive regime to end-of-life ships. It also reveals a lack of understanding by the shipping industry of the intricacies of the current complex web of international and regional legal requirements.

The circumstances of the detention are not complicated. The patience of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Platform on Shipbreaking activists paid off as they once again identified, through press articles and Equasis, a ship due to depart from an EU member state destined for recycling in a non-OECD (developing) country.

The activists rely on the regulation, which is the regional implementation of the Basel Convention and of the internationally not-in-force Ban Amendment, forbidding the export of hazardous waste to developing countries. Whereas the regulation is good for controlling the export of hazardous waste, it becomes deeply flawed when regulating end-of-life ships. The very few cases of its enforcement to such vessels have been disastrous — for both the regulator and the regulated. In fact, this is why Europe had to develop the new EU Ship Recycling Regulation, which came into force in December 2013, and which appears to closely follow the as yet not-in-force 2009 Hong Kong Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships (Hong Kong Convention).

The new regulation (Article 27), when fully applied in the near future, excludes EU-flag ships from the requirements of the waste shipment regulation but does not exclude non-EU-flag vessels.

Owners of non-EU-flag ships intending to recycle their vessels now or in the future will have to walk a tightrope when trading in EU ports so as not to fall prey to the activists, who see their role in enforcing the Ban Amendment to ship recycling and also in banning beaching.

Other than Turkey, no other recycling country can satisfy these demands, notwithstanding that ships are beached in Turkey and that there are a number of high-quality yards in China and India. Even corporately socially responsible owners with policies for green and safe recycling in force — as in the case of the Global Spirit — are, and will remain, liable to falling foul of the witch-hunt that the waste shipment regulation affords to activists (according to the contorted logic of enforcing this regulation to ships, a Chinese-flag ship departing a European port for recycling in China should be detained).

The port-state authorities of EU member states seem to have no choice but to implement this European law, especially when pressurised by the activists through the media.

Ironically, the Global Spirit is not a clear-cut case of violation as, on departing Europe, she was destined to go to a West African port with a cargo of cars and not, as alleged by the NGO, to India for recycling. The wording in the regulation that could be used to define the ship’s voyage is unclear and only the interpretation of a court would be final.

The Global Spirit is a harsh reminder to countries of the urgent need to ratify the Hong Kong Convention so that ship recycling may be regulated by common, global, practical and effective rules.

While witnessing the europolitics surrounding this vessel detention, we can at least rejoice at the accession on 19 May by the Republic of Congo to the Hong Kong Convention.

Congo, while not a major flag or recycling state, was one of two nations that had strongly opposed the recognition of the Hong Kong Convention as equivalent to the Basel Convention at the 10th Conference of the Parties to the Basel Convention in 2011.