Shipbreaking, A Dirty But Necessary Industry

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 2/11/2011 12:03:00 AM
A Bangladeshi colleague pointed out to me that a report he prepared for the World Bank has now come out in print form. There are probably few tasks in this world that are as "3D" (dirty, difficult, and dangerous) as shipbreaking. It involves dismantling disused vessels for scrap--usually in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India. The costs are generally well-known: environmental pollution, injury or even loss of life figure large in this largely unregulated trade. In 2009, the Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships was adopted that confronted a number of relevant issues. While most stakeholders thought it was a move forward, some NGOs complained that it was actually a step backward from the preexisting 1989 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. (Which the United States hasn't ratified, unsurprisingly.) Their main beef is that responsibility is placed on the flag carrier as opposed to shipping companies, allowing the loophole of reassigning ships on their final voyages to be placed under flags of convenience that are hard to call to account.

At any rate, this World Bank-commissioned report focusses more on the environmental considerations at hand in shipbreaking. Given that shipbreakers on the Indian subcontinent are not the most stable and organized of enterprises, there are considerable difficulties to surmount in identifying potentially toxic materials and hence enhance worker safety. What follows is the executive summary which offers a taster of what's in the report--certainly a must-read for those concerned with global environmental or trade and environment issues:

The ship breaking and recycling industry (SBRI) converts end-of-life ships into steel and other recyclable items. Ship recycling offers the most environmentally sustainable way of disposing of old vessels, with virtually every part of the hull and machine complex being reused or recycled as scrap metal. Although the industry is beneficial from a life-cycle assessment point of view, over the years it has gravitated toward countries with low labor costs, weak regulations on occupational safety, and limited environmental enforcement. The “global shift” in the industry to countries with comparatively weaker regulatory systems is of particular concern as ships contain many hazards that can have significant detrimental effects on humans and the environment if not dealt with properly.

Currently, the global center of the ship breaking and recycling industry is located in South Asia, specifically Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. These three countries account for 70–80 percent of the international market for ship breaking of ocean-going vessels, with China and Turkey accounting for most of the rest. Only about 5 percent of the global volume of such vessels is scrapped outside these five countries. This study focuses on the SBRI in Bangladesh and Pakistan to get a better understanding of the economics of the industry and the environmental impacts arising out of such activity and to explore possible ways in which such environmental effects may be mitigated.

The ship breaking and recycling industry plays a significant economic role in Bangladesh and Pakistan, supplying a substantial quantity of re-rollable scrap steel for the iron and steel industries. SBRI provides more than half of Bangladesh’s steel supply, for example, making it a strategic industry in that country. The industry also creates hundreds of thousands of direct and indirect jobs for some of the poorest and most marginalized segments of the population in those countries. The work force in each country varies with the volume of ship breaking but may range from 8,000–22,000 workers in the ship recycling yards to 200,000 in the supply chain, shops, and re-rolling mills—with dependents in extended families estimated to reach over 500,000 in Bangladesh, although fewer in Pakistan.

The SBRI also has a major social impact in that region. Most workers in the ship breaking yards are migrant workers from poorer regions of each country. The percentage of such migrant labor is higher in Bangladesh compared to Pakistan. A major reason for employment of migrant labor is the hazardous nature of the job as well as variations in employment levels depending on the extent of ship breaking work being done.

Working conditions have historically been poor for the majority of these workers, with limited use of personal protective equipment, frequent exposure to hazardous materials, and unsafe conditions. Accidents causing fatalities and injuries are frequently reported in the local media. A wealth of reports from nongovernmental organizations, academia, and other interested entities complement the limited monitoring data from the relevant authorities. Mechanization of some of the hazardous works may minimize such accidents. Among the three countries, Pakistan uses the highest degree of mechanization in the yards.

Environmental protection is limited in most yards and the sound management of asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), ozone-depleting substances (ODS), and a range of heavy metals is virtually nonexistent. Of late, some efforts at minimizing the release of such pollutants in the environment are emerging in Bangladesh due to intervention by the courts. Similar interest in improving the industry’s performance is also developing in Pakistan.

Recognizing the need for coordinated action on the issue, the International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships was adopted by a diplomatic conference under the auspices of the International Maritime Organization in Hong Kong, China, in May 2009. The Hong Kong Convention (HKC) is expected to enter into force in 2015.

Despite the generally unpleasant nature of these tasks, it is understandable that the industry will not disappear anytime soon. Indeed, given the skyrocketing prices of raw materials in this day and age, buying up disposed vessels at bargain prices for scrap looks set to thrive. Developed countries that have more knowledge about safe practices tend to avoid this trade given its irregular nature, but perhaps knowledge can still be imparted. How do you regulate a loosely regulated trade run by loosely affiliated networks? It's an interesting global governance problematique to say the least that would benefit from coordination that's presently absent to a large degree