Urgent action required to clean up ship dismantling industry

Publish date: July 6, 2007

BRUSSELS - While the European Commission (EC) is leading the way to make ship dismantling more environmentally friendly, there are still enormous hurdles to overcome in forging an international front in tackling the devastating side effects of the ship scrapping industry, Ingvild Jenssen, coordinator of the global NGO Platform on Shipbreaking, said.

Jenssen, the Platform coordinator – which aims to influence EC policy in the ship dismantling sphere – welcomes efforts undertaken by the EC to take the lead in making ship scrapping safer for the environment.

Several human rights and environmental NGOs, including Bellona, comprised the NGO Platform on Shipbreaking, and works to stop the attendant release of toxic waste and the pollution of the seashore near the large ship dismantling yards, as well as to improve conditions for workers.

Most end-of-life vessels are currently broken up on South Asian beaches under extremely dangerous conditions that do not conform with even minimum occupational safety and environmental standards.

Annually, between 200 and 600 large merchant vessels around the world are taken apart for their valuable scrap metal. This figure is set to rise in the next few years as single-hull oil tankers are phased out in favour of safer double-hulled vessels.

Ship scrapping a deadly industry

The ship scrapping industry is one of the most deadly industries in the world. The bulk of the dismantling industry is located along the beaches of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, where it provides thousands of jobs.

The lack of environmental and health and safety protection measures, however, means that pollution from dismantling operations contaminates wide stretches of these beaches – where there is no possibility for containing toxins – and that accident rates among workers are extremely high. Older ships contain many hazardous materials, including asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), tributyltin and large quantities of oil and oil sludge.

Commission Green Paper

In April 2006, the EC began developing an EU-wide strategy on ship dismantling. This led to a Green Paper presented May 22nd 2007 on how to make the dismantling of old ships safer for workers and the environment.

“Many ships from Europe and around the world are broken up in South Asia in appalling conditions which lead to hundreds of deaths and injuries each year and serious coastal pollution,” said EC Environmental Commissioner Stavros Dimas, commenting on the green paper.

“The EU has a duty to take action to protect the health and safety of the workers involved and reduce the pollution these activities are causing,” he continued.

“There is an urgent need for binding international rules, but until an international solution is found, the EU should tackle the problem caused by the ship dismantling of state-owned ships and warships.”

Current international rules are difficult to apply to ships, because of the lack of an international legal framework. This is why the International Maritime Organization (IMO) is preparing a binding Convention on the environmentally sound and safe recycling of ships. This situation is an especially acute concern for the European Union as nearly one in three ships in the world’s fleet sails under the flag of an EU member state. Even more are owned by European companies.

“At present, the Draft IMO Convention places no substantial legal obligations or financial incentives on ship breaking countries or ship owners to improve upon the status quo. Worse, the IMO convention is not expected to be adopted before 2009 and will be ratified a further six years later at the earliest,” said Jim Puckett of the Action Network, an NGO fighting the toxic waste problem in the ship scrapping industry.

“By then, it will be too late to deal with the phased out single-hull-oil-tanker fleet and too late for the thousands of workers toiling today. The EU has the ability to act now when it is needed.”

While the development and entry into force of the planned international Convention on safe ship recycling is pending, the Green Paper sets out a range of options for action at the EU level. The aim of the consultation is to seek input from EU institutions, Member States, stakeholders and the public on the best way forward in addressing this serious health, safety and environmental issue.

Rapid implementation needed
Bellona and other member organisations of The NGO Platform on Shipbreaking are calling for urgent implementation of the Green Paper

“We are thrilled to see the European Union take leadership and press the very profitable shipping industry to finally start using some of their profits to manage their end-of-life ships responsibly,” said platform coordinator Jenssen.

In the context of the current negotiations for an IMO convention, the EC’s initiative to develop an EU-wide strategy for ship dismantling is also a welcome step forward, she said.

Although the NGO Platform accepts that the IMO bears responsibility to address the issue in an appropriate way and with a level of control “equivalent” to that found in the Basel Convention, there is currently little evidence to suggest that the IMO, in contrast to the EU, will actually perform its duties with the stringency required.

“It is no longer acceptable for Europe’s waste problems to be exported to the developing world’s ship breaking yards. The reality is that profits are made whilst vulnerable workers are exposed to deadly accidents and toxic chemicals,” said Jenssen.

“We therefore urge the EU to follow up the good intentions stated in the Green Paper, with urgent and appropriate action.”

The deadline for comments to the Green paper is September 30th, and all stakeholders are invited to participate. In light of the responses received, the EC will decide how to further pursue the development of the EU ship dismantling strategy.


The NGO Platform on Shipbreaking is a global cooperative effort between: The Bellona Foundation, the European Federation of Transport and Environment, the North Sea Foundation, Greenpeace, the International Ban Asbestos Network, the International Federation of Human Rights, the Basel Action Network, Toxic Links India, the Occupational Health and Safety Association, the Corporate Accountability Desk, the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association, Young Power in Social Action, and the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies

Ingvild Jenssen works as coordinator for The NGO Platform on Shipbreaking. On April 27th 2006, the Platform organized a public hearing in the European Parliament about the topic.

Green Paper: The European Commission involves stakeholders when preparing legislation by issuing a Green Paper. After the consultation process the Commission may propose a White Paper, which is a concrete legislative proposal to be decided on by the European Council and the European Parliament.

The Green Paper on better ship dismantling was issued May 22nd 2007, and contains some essential policy statements as well as innovative ideas on how the ship scrapping issue can be tackled. Most importantly these include:

Strengthening the enforcement of existing Community law, including the Basel Convention and the export ban on hazardous waste, as implemented at an EU level through the Waste Shipment Regulation;

Acknowledging that the problem of insufficient "clean" capacity will be aggravated by the forthcoming phasing-out of all single-hull oil tankers and that interim solutions are needed before the IMO convention, if accepted, comes into force;

Strengthening EU ship dismantling capacity;

Requiring that ship owners, in accordance with the "polluter pays" and producer responsibility principles, take full responsibility for proper disposal of their vessels;

Establishing a mandatory funding mechanism where contributions will be linked to IMO registration or the operation of ships over their lifetime, such as through port fees or mandatory insurance schemes;

Streamlining shipping aids with a link to green ship dismantling.

Niklas Tessem contributed to this article.

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