Ship recycling: EU needs to take responsibility for hidden costs

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Shipbreaking on the beaches of South Asia results in disastrous pollution, labour rights abuses, severe injuries and fatalities among workers. Still, the vast majority of European shipping companies continue to avoid the costs of proper disposal by selling their ships to these breaking yards, writes Patrizia Heidegger.

Patrizia Heidegger is executive director of Shipbreaking Platform, a global coalition of 18 environmental, human and labour rights organisations.

"In 2011 approximately 200 European owned vessels ended up on the beaches of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The European Commission has estimated that every year between 40,000 and 1.3 million tonnes of hazardous materials are sent to developing countries on board of European vessels.

Poor and unskilled migrant workers are deployed by the thousands to break down the ships manually, which are often loaded with as asbestos, lead, PCBs and heavy metals. The yard owners give little care to worker safety or protection of the environment, so that toxics sicken the workers and ravage coastal ecosystems.

The muddy sand and shifting grounds of tidal beaches cannot support heavy lifting equipment or safety gear; therefore, regular accidents maim or kill hundreds of workers each year. According to press reports and local observers, in 2011 more than 40 young men lost their lives in the shipbreaking yards in South Asia. Only recently, at least six workers were killed in a fire, which broke out during dismantling operations of the British vessel 'Union Brave' in Alang/India on 6 October. There are no official figures about the total number of accidents and casualties in the yards, however, it is known that the life expectancy of shipbreakers is not much more than 40 years.

A better regulation of the problem becomes even more pressing: there will be a boom in numbers of vessels to be dismantled due to the phasing out of single hull oil tankers by 2015. The EC has stated that the situation is likely to worsen, thus the need for appropriate and effective action is urgent.

The Waste Shipment Regulation (WSR) (Regulation 1013/2006/EC) implements the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal as well as the Basel Ban Amendment into European Community law. Exports of hazardous waste to developing countries such as end-of-life vessels are deemed illegal.

However, it is easy for European ship owners to circumvent the regulation by simply avoiding informing European port states of their intent to dispose a vessel. Under the guise of continued operational use, they have been able to sell their vessels to substandard dismantling yards in developing countries. The current territorial interpretation of “exporting state” is not suitable for the shipping industry as ships are wastes that can move on their own power.

Former European Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas announced that shipbreaking was a priority issue for the Commission. The EC thus adopted a Green Paper on better ship dismantling in 2007 calling for “radical change”, as well as a Communication on a European Strategy for better ship dismantling in 2008. The strategy set forward the possible establishment of a mandatory fund or tax to ensure the polluter pays principle and to stimulate green recycling, a certification system for recycling facilities and a list of pre-waste ships. Following the EP’s repeated call for action, the EC published a legislative proposal for a regulation on ship recycling on 23 March 2012.

The proposal suggests transposing the IMO Hong Kong Convention into Community law – and with that to remove ships from the current WSR. This would legalise the export of European ships full of hazardous materials to developing countries. While the EC proposes to establish an EU list of dismantling facilities that meet its requirements and EU-flagged vessels would only be allowed to be dismantled in these facilities, the proper enforcement of these measures is not ensured.

Moreover, the scope is limited to EU-flagged vessels: only 8% of all end-of-life vessels are European-flagged while around 40% of the world’s fleet belong to European owners. In 2011, more that two-thirds of European owned vessels broken on the beaches of South Asia were registered under non-EU flags such as Panama, Liberia and Bahamas.

If the objective of the EU is to change the current situation, the proposal will not suffice. It does not set ambitious aims that could effectively alter practices in the long term. Because of the extremely limited scope and weak enforcement mechanisms, the proposal will in effect diminish European responsibility to provide solutions to the ship breaking crisis.

If the proposal is not significantly improved by the Council and Parliament, the European shipping industry will continue to be at the heart of scandals involving severe pollution and exploitation of vulnerable workers in developing countries as the latest fatal accident in India has shown.

In order to tackle the problem, the EU needs to adopt a progressive policy that does not undermine existing precautionary restrictions on transboundary movements of hazardous waste to developing countries. Moreover, all vessels calling at European ports need to be included to enlarge the scope of the regulation. Requirements to hold an inventory of hazardous materials and to provide input to a ship recycling fund or hold a compulsory insurance would then apply to not only EU flagged ships, but all ships visiting European ports.

Unless economic incentives are introduced to the proposal ensuring the polluter pays principle, circumvention of the law will persist, and ships with beneficial owners based in the EU will continue to be sold to substandard shipbreaking. Port fees, bonds or insurance polices are ways of ensuring that the polluter indeed does pay, and of recovering the costs of a truly green ship recycling of all European-owned ships."

European Commission

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