IMO’s ship recycling convention will fail to ensure sustainable recycling, NGOs warn

Environmental groups around the world have issued a warning that the International Maritime Organisation’s (IMO) Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships, which will enter into force in 2025, could fail to ensure sustainable ship recycling.

NGO Shipbreaking Platform

As informed, the groups raised their voices that its requirements fall short of ensuring ethical, safe and environmentally sound ship recycling and risk undermining existing laws and efforts to reform the sector’s dangerous and polluting practices.

Furthermore, the UN Special Rapporteur on Toxics and Human Rights, the Centre for International Environmental Law and the European Parliament have all exposed the fatal weakness of the Hong Kong Convention’s standards and enforcement mechanisms. 

Additionally, the majority of the 191 countries party to the UNEP Basel Convention, which controls the global trade of hazardous wastes, including end-of-life ships, and bans the export of toxic wastes from OECD to non-OECD countries, found that the Hong Kong Convention fails to provide an equivalent level of control to the Basel Convention as it does not prevent the dumping of toxic ships in developing countries

“This international convention rubberstamps shipbreaking on tidal mudflats and ignores labour rights and international rules for hazardous waste management. It will only serve the interests of shipping companies to avoid paying the true cost of sustainable and ethical recycling and undercut efforts to level the playing field for responsible ship recyclers to compete. As it stands, the Hong Kong Convention undermines the overall credibility of not only its own stated objectives, but also that of the IMO,” Ingvild Jenssen – Executive Director and Founder – NGO Shipbreaking Platform said.

Last month, Bangladesh granted approval for the implementation of the Hong Kong Convention on the safe recycling of ships and offshore assets. The shipbreaking sector has been a strong revenue generator for the country’s economy and has played a massive role in the development of supporting industries and thus employment opportunities.

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However, Bangladesh Environmental Law Association (BELA) also warns that the convention might not deliver the main objectives and it needs changes to the sustainable ship recycling goals.

“The entry-into-force of the flawed Hong Kong Convention is not a time for celebration, but it will allow for the reopening of the text. We will be calling for changes so that it meets expectations of environmental justice, labour rights and circular economy objectives, and calling on the European Union and responsible ship owners to ensure that the shipping sector does not get away with green-washing the current deplorable practices that would never be allowed in their home countries,” Rizwana Hasan – Director of BELA stressed.

With its failure to outline robust environmental and social standards for the sound management of the many toxic substances contained in end-of-life ships, the Hong Kong Convention falls short of the Basel Convention and the more recent EU Ship Recycling Regulation.

Moreover, it sets no requirements, beyond compliance with national rules for the management of hazardous wastes downstream. It endorses beaching, a practice long associated with pollution and health hazards for both workers and local communities. It also lacks provisions to protect workers engaged in shipbreaking operations, who often face precarious work environments, lack of protective equipment and limited access to medical facilities, the NGO further commented.

Beaching yards in India and Bangladesh that already claim they comply with the Hong Kong Convention are backed by ship owners keen to maintain a cheap disposal route for their end-of-life vessels where the costs related to managing hazardous materials safely, including residue oils, asbestos and mercury, are not factored in.

Instead the costs are born by workers, local communities and sensitive coastal environments. The harms caused include toxic exposure and loss of lives, limbs, livelihoods and biodiversity, the groups highlighted.

They also emphasized that shipowners pay neither to prevent this harm in the first place, nor to compensate for or mitigate it. Externalising costs in this manner renders disposal of end-of-life ships artificially cheap resulting also in less economic incentive to design out toxic materials in the first place.

“This is not a proud moment for IMO. It has been a fourteen years’ wait for a convention that does not solve the problems it was supposed to address. The Hong Kong Convention is already adopted by the sub-standard yards on the beaches in India and Bangladesh, so in practice, there will be no change, just ‘bad business as usual’. Eyes are now on the Basel Convention and the EU’s Ship Recycling Regulation. Both are important blueprints for the necessary reform of the IMO’s Hong Kong Convention,” Sigurd Enge – Senior Advisor – Bellona Foundation said.

“Europe in particular, with its large fleet, needs to continue to take the lead and support technology and incentives to make sure new alternative and competitive recycling facilities are establishedm,” he concluded.