Green Garbage

Recycling is something we aim to do every day. We separate our garbage on a daily basis. Vegetables are divided from paper boxes and plastic is kept in another container. Ship recycling is based on the same principle. It is possible to separate hazardous waste from steel, but what if you throw everything on one pile? Maritime by Holland Magazine takes a rummage in the ship recycling industry.

“When a vessel reaches its end-of-life, companies have various options. We hope they choose to contact us to guide them in the recycling of their vessel”, states Tom Peter Blankestijn, managing director of Sea2Cradle. Sea2Cradle has worked towards establishing high standards for Green Ship Recycling, next to being active in IMO’s Ship Recycling Convention and EU legislation. Blankestijn is enthusiastic when he explains the procedure Sea2Cradle follows. “The recycling takes place at facilities in China and most importantly, we document everything. Literally everything. The process of recycling starts with pre-cleaning and categorising all items, hazardous materials are separated and carefully disposed of. After cleaning, dismantling commences, always in a structured manner.” Blankestijn shows us pictures of each step taken. This is documented as proof and is compiled into a comprehensive document that, in time, he hopes, will become a legal document.


When looking at the environmental and human aspect, the work done by Sea2Cradle is very sustainable. Unfortunately, this is not the most practiced way of recycling. Beaching, where vessels are sailed onto tidal wave beaches, is a more practiced method. Once on the beach workers pull the ship apart manually, with total disregard to the hazardous materials and their own safety. One worker dies each week. This subject was highlighted during a seminar of ship recycling, organised by HME and the North Sea Foundation. “I was pleased to see the NGO Shipbreaking Platform was given time to speak during the seminar”, comments Blankestijn. NGO Shipbreaking Platform is a coalition of environmental, human and labour rights organizations around the world, that aims to prevent toxic end-of-life ships from being beached in developing countries and spoke about the terrible working conditions on beaches in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh during the seminar. Blankestijn: “People sometimes argument that this is work for people in these countries. This is absurd. We denounce child labour, but we will allow this? It is not right. More should be done to offer help to these developing countries.” Blankestijn adds: “However, this is foremost the task of governments and not so much that of the maritime industry.”

Basel and Hong Kong

The North Sea Foundation, who strives for a complete approach to the problems concerning the North Sea, is one of the founders and members of the NGO Shipbreaking Platform, which has its head office in Brussels, Belgium. Merijn Hougee, project leader clean shipping at the North Sea Foundation, explains: “Ship recycling is big business, an old cargo vessel can be worth up to several million dollars, depending on its weight. At least part of this value should be invested in clean and safe ship dismantling. The reason beaching is happening is because the majority of the ship owners will always choose the top dollar option when selling a ship for dismantling. The highest price for an old ship unfortunately also means the highest price for the environment and the safety of workers on the ship breaking beaches of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.”

The facts about the environmental and social effects of shipbreaking show that the political institutions fail to adequately govern the externalities of the shipbreaking industry. Due to the transnational character of shipping, regulatory frameworks can be easily circumvented. In the shipbreaking countries there is a lack of compliance mechanisms of both national law and international conventions such as the Basel Convention. The Basel Convention, established under the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), does not allow a free trade in hazardous waste, and prohibits exporting such waste from developed to developing countries. Due to the transnational character of shipping, the Basel Convention does not work well for ships.

In 2009 the Hong Kong Convention was signed, written specifically for the recycling of ships, which according to NGO Shipbreaking Platform is missing many keys points. The Hong Kong Convention does not deal with the downstream waste management. Next to that the Hong Kong Convention has not yet come into force. This will only happen when no less that 15 states have ratified the convention, when the combined merchant fleet of the necessary states have ratified or 40 per cent of the gross tonnage of the world’s merchant shipping, amongst other points. Blankestijn is doubtful and hopes the European Union, who are currently working on their own legislation, will prove more fruitful. Hougee comments: “According to the Basel Convention recycling a ship in China that has left a European port is illegal. But what if these Chinese yards are operated in an environmentally sound and safe manner, including the downstream waste management – which seems to be the case with the yards Sea2Cradle uses? In that case I do not see why ships cannot be recycled there. The EU is currently working on new rules to deal with that, amongst other things. This process will take at least until the end of this year. We will continue to play our part in advising the EU as we did the IMO.”

What can be done?

“When we look at shipping and the environment, we consider the whole life cycle of ships”, states Hougee. “If we promote clean shipping, we must also promote clean and safe ship recycling, don’t you think? Monitoring the Dutch influence on the beaching issue is relatively easy. There are databases with all vessels in the world including ages, ownership etc. Ranging from 800 to 1,000 vessel reach the end of their lives yearly. Most of the vessels are then sold on. Here comes the difficult part as I believe some companies are blind to the fact they are selling their vessels on to be beached. It may be naive, but I do believe this is what happens.” Most Dutch vessels are sold long before recycling becomes an issue. Blankestijn mentions that legislation is being worked on that will fine companies and previous owners when a vessel has been beached. Perhaps this will motivate ship owners to be more actively involved when selling on their vessels.

From awareness to action

How to get the message across to ship owners? Hougee: “The North Sea Foundation and the NGO Shipbreaking Platform regularly organise seminars. Part of getting people active is showing them all the options. The future will be that companies that only go ‘green’. Next to that our aim is to remain in contact with companies who want to change their policy on end-of-life vessels and hazardous waste. We are not here to name and shame, we want to approach companies from a positive point of view. How do we do this? We try to create market demand, so that if cargo owners like Philips, Volvo, Ericsson or H&M need goods transported, they will choose a shipping company known for its green credentials, including the safe and environmentally sound ship recycling.” Hopefully the future will see Dutch ship owners taking ‘greener’ actions when it comes to ship recycling.

Rebecca McFedries

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