Dismantling & Recycling Decommissioned Ships 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



In the wake of the Clemenceau debacle, the issue of what to do with Europe's end-of-life ships has become a highly sensitive topic.1 In the last two years, the NGO Platform on Ship-breaking, which represents international bodies and national campaigning groups with diverse interests, has made a major contribution to the global debate on the dumping of toxic ships in developing countries. In April 2006, the Platform organized an open hearing at the European Parliament followed by the opening of a photographic exhibition of graphic images of the daily reality experienced by workers in ship-breaking yards in India and Bangladesh. Responding to these events, EU Commissioner Dimas pledged his personal commitment to remedying this injustice saying “At the heart (of new EU ship-breaking policies) must come human health and the environment.”

The level of interest of the UK shipowning community in the recycling issue was apparent from the capacity audience at a London conference held this week (May 23) entitled: Dismantling & Recycling Decommissioned Ships. There was a consensus amongst speakers representing the UK Government and industry that the bad old days when toxic ships could be dumped on Asian beaches were over. The need for international protocols was apparent, they agreed, but while discussions were ongoing, steps needed to be taken to prevent the commercial exploitation by OECD shipping fleets of cheap and vulnerable workers in the developing world.

According to Susan Wingfield from DEFRA,2 the UK government is taking steps towards “acceptable standards in ship recycling,” whilst global agreements are being progressed. A consultation process on a UK ship recycling strategy is underway, spurred by the furore over the 2003 import of four redundant U.S. naval ships to Hartlepool. The dearth of ship-breaking capacity in Europe requires international action and Susan Wingfield urged the EU to act in concert with the International Maritime Organization and the International Labor Organization to find a sustainable solution. Speakers Henrietta Anstey and Dr. Gillian Reynolds discussed the environmental impact of ship recycling and the concept of “green passports” and ship classification.

 Henrietta Anstey, Ingvild Jenssen and Susan Wingfield.

The human cost of ship recycling in Asia was addressed by Ingvild Jenssen, Coordinator of the NGO Platform on Ship-breaking, who illustrated her talk with images of barefoot and unprotected workers dismantling rusting and leaking vessels with their bare hands. Little has been done since the late 1990s when the export of OECD toxic vessels to Asia was recognized as an international scandal. “There is,” Jenssen said “a moral and legal obligation to act now, especially with the upcoming phase-out of single hull oil tankers. Ship-breaking is a public service and not a profitable business for shipowners.” An ECO fund, paid for by governments and shipowners, should be established under the “polluter pays” principle. Exporting countries need to create pre-cleaning capacity to avoid costly mistakes such as the futile search by the Clemenceau for a country willing to accept it. Responding to the images Ms. Jenssen showed, Tony Taperell, Managing Director of Technical Demolition Services, said he was reminded of the hazardous conditions he experienced as a teenage shipyard apprentice in the 1960s. Taperell was appalled that such conditions still existed in the 21st century; there was no reason, he said, that UK ships could not be scrapped in this country. Even as shipowners in the audience retorted that there was no UK capacity for such activity, the Environment Agency announced that Swan Hunter had been awarded a license to dismantle ships at its Wallsend yard.3

The tone and content of the final two presentations were contrary to what had gone before. Edmund Brookes, Deputy Director-General of UK Chamber of Shipping, said a “reality check” was needed; proposals made by previous speakers were, he said, unsustainable and uneconomic. A pre-cleaned ship cannot sail under its own power; this fact combined with the shortage of ocean-going tugs means that decommissioning must be done in countries such as Bangladesh,4 India and Pakistan where 80% of the world's recycling capacity was located. In Asia, the high re-sale value of steel from redundant ships can be worth $7 million for a Cape-size bulk carrier. Agreeing that global benchmarks are needed to ensure that standards are improved in Asian scrapyards, Brooke blamed governments in receiving countries for their lack of action to improve occupational health and safety conditions. He absolved “poor shipowners” of their moral obligation saying that they “can't be responsible for everything.” When he was asked by Laurie Kazan-Allen, Coordinator of IBAS5 and a member of the Platform on Ship-breaking, “If slavery was still legal, do you think it would be moral for Joe Shipbuilder to take commercial advantage of that,” he was at a loss for words.

The final speaker of the day was Briac Beilvert, the Chief Executive Officer of Ship Decommissioning Industries (SDI), a company intimately involved with the farce of the Clemenceau. Beilvert defended SDI's discredited plan for the decommissioning of the Clemenceau in Asia claiming that it was an innovative solution devised by maritime experts. When he was asked whether, in hindsight, he would have done anything differently, he reaffirmed that SDI's industrial handling of the ship had been correct but that its media strategy for ensuring accurate reporting had been faulty. Considering the masses of newsprint, both real and virtual, which the Clemenceau has generated and the national embarrassment caused by this attempt to dump French toxins in Asia, one could be forgiven for having expected this speaker to have exhibited a modicum of regret for his company's culpability in this affair.

As unpalatable as they are, the views expressed by the last two speakers are the norm for most shipowners, whose sole motivation is commercial. Some businessmen specialize in buying end-of-life ships many of which sail under flags of convenience; using this and other ploys, they manage to hide the ownership of these vessels and thereby avoid the global regulations which exist. In the 21st century, the most effective pirates are not the ones aboard ships but those in board rooms

May 25, 2006


1 See: The Clemenceau Comes Home!

2 DEFRA: (UK) Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

3Kelly T. Big Break for Yard. 22 May 2006. http://www.southtynesidetoday.co.uk

4 More information on the reality of ship-breaking in Bangladesh can be obtained from YPSA, an NGO based in Chittagong, Bangladesh. The April 2006 issue of YPSA's publication: Social Action focuses on the ship-breaking and ship recycling industries. For more information email: info@ypsa.org

5 IBAS: International Ban Asbestos Secretariat



       Home   |    Site Info   |    Site Map   |    About   |    Top↑