- 1 Overview
- 2 Important Documents
- 3 Shipbreaking Methods
- 4 Benefits of Shipbreaking
- 5 Occupational Hazards
- 6 Environmental Impacts
- 7 Toxins: Health and Environmental Concerns
- 8 Ship Breaking Regulations
- 9 Green Ship Countries
- 10 Alternative Solutions
- 11 References
Every year, hundreds of ships make their final voyage from the high seas to shipbreaking yards where workers dismantle them for metal and other reusable components. These ships tend to have been deemed unsafe, their steel structures weakened by years of travel on the open ocean. Due to the high cost of repairs and modifications, ship owners often decide to retire ships after about 20 years. Finding cargo for ships of this age would prove extremely difficult, as cargo-booked ships over 20 years old struggle to qualify for insurance coverage. Asia hosts the majority of the world’s shipbreakers, and together, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and China recycle "approximately 89% of the light-displacement tons scrapped worldwide." This shipbreaking hub exists in large part due to the absence of the kind of stringent environmental, occupational safety, and health regulations found in the European Union and the United States. Consequently, American and European shipbreaking facilities have difficulty competing with their Asian rivals. It is worthy of note that Turkey also has a small shipbreaking industry. While shipbreakers have the opportunity to recover valuable materials for recycling, they must also deal with the toxic substances present in ships. Without proper treatment, ship toxins can endanger workers, local communities, and the environment.
Shipbreaking is the disassembly of retired ships. This process is also known as ship demolition, ship dismantling, ship scrapping, ship cracking, ship demolition, ship disposal, and ship recycling. Alternatives to shipbreaking include sinking ships to form artificial reefs or storing them (either on land or in the water).
Many companies send ships to be disassembled and recycled in developing countries of Asia. In India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, bi-monthly extreme high tides allow these ships to be sailed onto beaches at full speed. Once the tide goes out, workers can begin to disassemble the beached vessels. Many environmental and safety issues arise with this method of retiring ships (see Occupational Hazards and Toxins: Health and Environmental Concerns). While no international laws regulate how ships must be prepared for shipbreaking, international treaties – if enforced – would limit the toxins allowed on beached ships.
A safer and cleaner alternative to beaching ships can be found in dry-dock shipbreaking. Dry docks are massive structures on which ships are decontaminated before being taken apart. Several nations, including China, the United States, and sometimes India, have dry-dock facilities. Unfortunately, this option is currently very expensive; one vessel might cost up to $800,000 to dry-dock and dismantle. Nevertheless, dry-docking remains the most environmentally and socially sound shipbreaking alternative to beach shipbreaking. For information about alternatives to shipbreaking and specific ship dismantling processes, see Green Ships: Alternative Solutions.
Benefits of Shipbreaking
The beach shipbreaking industry provides shipbreaking countries with jobs and also large quantities of valuable materials which can be sold at bargain prices. Making up 95% of a ship’s hull, steel is the most plentiful recycled material. Producing steel with recycled rather than raw materials saves energy, and this recycled steel can then be used for construction. Bangladesh depends on old ships for its steel supply, and shipbreaking in India alone produces 2.5 million tons of scrap steel every year. Old ship parts ranging from engines to air conditioners are also highly desirable.
In addition to supporting the economy with commodities, shipbreaking also provides a huge number of jobs. In India, about 1 million people work in the shipbreaking industry. Bangladesh and Pakistan also have large shipyard workforces. Unfortunately, these jobs are highly dangerous. See the section on occupational hazards for more information on life in the shipbreaking industry.
- For information on working conditions in specific countries, see the green ships page on occupational and environmental hazards in the main shipbreaking countries.
Unfortunately, shipbreaking operations often concern themselves more with the profitability of the steel and ship parts than with the safety of the shipbreaking process. Dangerous working conditions occur particularly often in the beach shipbreaking operations of India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Workers find themselves exposed to harmful toxins, in danger of being injured by falling parts, and imperiled as they use dangerous tools. Slick surfaces, oxygen depletion in confined spaces, snapping cables, and biological hazards (e.g. infectious disease) also present dangers. Historically, “[m]ost of the workers [did not] wear protective equipment such as helmets, masks, or goggles, and there [were] no warning signs of danger.” Recently, conditions in India have improved somewhat with the use of hard hats, boots, and gloves. Nevertheless, accidents and injuries are still common, and safety precautions in Bangladesh and Pakistan remain severely inadequate. In 2003, 88% of workers in Bangladesh reported suffering from some sort of injury. In addition to the lack of safety equipment, there is no training to educate workers about the potential harms involved with shipbreaking operations. The majority of workers have not been trained to use blowtorches or to remove toxic materials. Consequently, they inhale noxious fumes produced by burning paint and ship coatings and may come in contact with hazardous materials. Low wages as well as poor sanitation and living conditions also make life in shipbreaking communities distinctly difficult. In India, the average daily pay for a shipbreaking worker is US $1.50. The workforce tends to be young, and in Bangladesh,about 11% of workers are under 18. Click here for more information on working conditions in each of the main shipbreaking countries.
While dry-dock shipbreaking operations keep toxins contained, beach shipbreaking operations normally allow pollutants to enter the coastal environment. Oil and toxins pour into ocean water and seep into sand and soil. Seabirds, marine mammals, turtles, and fish frequently suffer health problems or die as a result. While mollusks, crustaceans, and fish are able to purify themselves after exposure to low levels of toxins, constant exposure can cause them to die. Moreover, people eating fish exposed to toxins risk ingesting large amounts of hazardous substances. Studies have found that 21 species of fish have disappeared in recent years in Bangladesh. Primary productivity, phytoplankton, zooplankton, and benthos have also diminished in and around shipbreaking yards.
Toxins from shipbreaking also damage coastal geology and plant growth. Along the beaches of Chittagong in Bangladesh, oil and the constant disruption caused by moving ships and machinery have caused the disappearance of kelp, mangroves, and grasses. Shore erosion has also accelerated in recent years.
Toxins: Health and Environmental Concerns
Ships contain many toxins that enter the environment and endanger human health during the shipbreaking process. The most common are tributyltin (TBT), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), lead, bilge water, and asbestos. Other dangerous substances aboard include mercury, radioactive materials, oil and fuel, ballast water, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and batteries.
Tributyltin (TBT) is a highly toxic chemical used in the anti-fouling paints applied to the hulls of ships. “Fouling” is the attachment of marine organisms to ship hulls. TBT, which made its first appearance in anti-fouling paints in the 1950’s, presents a danger to both marine life and to humans. Its basic substance, tin, replaced copper, which was previously a common additive. Effective for a longer time period than copper due to its slow degradation in water, tin makes for a more durable paint, but is also more poisonous.
TBT is intended to poison organisms that live on ship hulls (i.e. barnacles, shellfish, algae, bacteria, and tube worms).It goes beyond this, though, impacting a wide spread of marine life. As an endocrine disrupting chemical, even low concentrations can cause reproductive dysfunction in aquatic organisms like mussels and oysters.Furthermore, TBT builds up in the tissues of sea mammals like seals and whales, and it leads to sterility and sometimes death in invertebrates. Shipyards and harbors are hotspots for TBT pollution, and the marine life in these places suffers.
Furthermore, TBT poses a potential health threat to shipyard workers and their communities. Anti-fouling paint that has been scraped off of beached ships ends up in the water and soil, and the melting of steel from ships adds TBT to the air.More research is needed into the human health consequences of eating seafood tainted with TBT, but it is known that organotins like TBT act as endocrine disruptors in humans.
The hazards of TBT have prompted many countries to ban TBT-based antifouling paint. In 2001, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) adopted the Antifouling Systems (AFS) Convention. The Convention entered into force in 2008, calling for a global halt to the application and presence of TBT-based antifouling paints on ships.
While these bans aim to remedy harms caused by TBT, they leave a few issues unresolved. TBT remains in sediment for a long time (with a half life of 1 to 9 years in sediment), meaning that it continues to affect places for years after it is banned. Another problem is that banning TBT results in a surge of TBT-based waste. This waste then ends up in shipyards. Finally, a number of countries continue to allow organotin compounds (including TBT) because they lack strict national or regional legislation.
At this point, no anti-fouling paint has unequivocally replaced TBT-based antifouling paint.
Polychlorinated Biphenyl's (PCB)
Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) are “synthetic organic chemicals”that pose a threat to human health, both while in use and during their disposal process. Historically, they were used in “electrical components, cables, vent ducts,…miscellaneous gaskets, insulation materials, adhesives, paint, and various rubber and plastic components.”Although the manufacture of PCBs was banned in 1979, PCBs remain a common toxin in old ships.
Exposure to PCB’s has been linked with a variety of health problems in animals and humans. According to the U.S. EPA, PCBs cause cancer in animals as well as disorders of the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system, and endocrine system(EPA). The EPA, along with several other agencies, has also identified PCBs as “probable human carcinogens.”As with TBT, PCBs endanger human health both through direct contact and through ingestion of contaminated marine life. Fish and marine animals high up in the food chain accumulate high concentrations of PCBs in their flesh, and the people who eat these animals face serious health risks.
PCBs persist in the environment and consequently require special care in their disposal. Workers must be trained to handle PCBs, and the chemical either must be safely burned or stored in secure landfills. Unfortunately, current international treaties have not yet succeeded in ensuring that this occurs. In large part, this is due to the failure of some countries (most notably, the United States) to ratify the agreements (see the International Toxics Progress Report Card) and to the lack of a “formal policing mechanism” in many of the agreements.
Lead poses a severe health risk to humans. Despite its known dangers, it continues to be used in the manufacture of vessels. Lead "is commonly found in batteries, paints…components of motors, generators, piping, and cables."When ingested by children, lead can cause "learning difficulties,...[intellectual and developmental disability,] and delayed neurological and physical development. In adults, lead affects the nervous system, impairing hearing, vision, and muscle coordination."
Bilge water is an oily waste of liquids and toxic substances that gathers in the bottom of a ship’s hull. It may contain “oil, cargo residues, inorganic salts, arsenic, copper, chromium, lead, and mercury.” The pooled rainwater and cooling and containment water present in ships during ship breaking adds to the quantity of bilge water. This water ends up spilling into the ocean where it reduces environmental quality.
Asbestos, a historically popular building material, also presents a human health hazard. Despite increased restrictions on new ships, the insulation of old ships often contains asbestos. Inhalation of these fibers is associated with both lung disease and multiple kinds of cancer. In fact, "asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma, a cancer of the lungs, chest cavity, and abdomen." Shipyard workers often develop asbestosis, a lung disease caused by asbestos. In order to safely handle asbestos-containing materials, workers must wear highly protective clothing, including respirators and face masks.In many shipbreaking yards, workers do not take these kinds of precautions.
Ship Breaking Regulations
Further information: Current Shipbreaking Regulations
Green Ship Countries
Further information: Shipbreaking Countries
Further information: Proposed Green Ship Disposal Options
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- EPA. (2015) Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Retrieved from http://www.epa.gov/.