Activists say EU’s new ship recycling regulation breaches UN agreement

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Campaign groups have accused EU decision-makers of weakening a regulation designed to end the practice of “beaching” old ships in foreign countries, saying the new law offers loopholes to shippers and would “unilaterally exempt” European vessels from international rules barring the export of hazardous materials to developing nations.

Negotiators from the European Parliament and the Council representing the 27 EU member states on Thursday (27 June) gave their political support to a new law that puts the EU in line with a global agreement on the safe dismantling of ships, known as the Hong Kong Convention.

The accord was approved by delegates to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in 2009 but has not yet been ratified.

The EU regulation, which is obligatory for all member states, bans shipping companies from beaching European-registered vessels in coastal areas for dismantling. But under pressure from national governments, a Parliament-backed effort to require EU inspections of overseas facilities recycling ships was stripped from the legislation and exemptions were made for potentially toxic contents.

Most end-of-life ships are sent to South Asia for dismantling and recycling at coastal facilities with minimal pollution controls and employee safety standards. Shipbreaking yards in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan are among the busiest are but also notorious for poor working and environmental conditions.


Ingvild Jenssen, policy advisor for the Brussels-based Shipbreaking Platform, said the Ship Recycling Regulation was a step in the right direction of seeking to improve environmental and working conditions at recycling facilities in those countries.

But she said last-minute deal-making by national governments would exempt the EU shippers from the 2006 European Waste Shipment Regulation that bars the export of hazardous materials abroad. That regulation enshrined into law the 1989 Basel Convention on the international shipment and disposal of dangerous cargo, designed to protect developing countries from becoming dumping grounds for advanced nations’ unwanted waste.

“The EU Council just chose to unilaterally exempt itself from the Basel Convention,” Jenssen told EURACTIV after the regulation was given final approval.

The regulation would do nothing to prevent European companies from re-registering their vessels in countries that do not set standards for shipbreaking, Jenssen said.

The Shipbreaking Platform and the European Environment Bureau (EEB), another campaign group, earlier expressed disappointment at defeat of tax on all ships entering EU ports to help finance EU-approved recycling facilities in third countries.

Parliament killed the tax proposal in a vote on 18 April, though legislators left it up to the European Commission to propose a future funding scheme.

MEPs defend law

Swedish MEP Carl Schlyter (Greens), who proposed the tax, and the Chairman of the Parliament’s environment committee, German MEP Matthias Groote (Socialists & Democrats), said they were both happy with the new regulation.

In a statement, Schlyter said the deal “finally puts an end to European ships being recklessly scrapped in developing countries. … The new law allows ship recycling from built structures only, with full containment of all hazardous materials and use of impermeable floors. None of this is possible on a beach, clearly disqualifying beaching for the recycling of EU ships."

Matthias Groote, the environmental committee chairman, said: "We have secured provisions to clearly preclude the practice of beaching, and this is the most important. Non-EU ships are also included in the scope, and also must carry an inventory of hazardous materials when calling at our ports.”

The ship recycling business is booming, buoyed by a surplus of ocean-going vessels and home-grown demand for raw materials.

Industry groups, including the International Chamber of Shipping in London, expressed concern that the legislation approved by the European Parliament in April was an overreach of EU powers, for example by requiring that the EU inspect foreign ship recycling facilities.

The chamber has argued that the Hong Kong Convention on ship breaking addresses labour safety and environmental protections and that an EU regulation would put the UN ratification process at risk. The convention, if ratified, would be overseen by the IMO.

Globally, some 1,300 ocean-going vessels were sent for recycling in 2012, 838 of which ended up in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. More than 300 originated from EU countries, according to data collected by the Shipbreaking Platform.

Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik said of the outcome of the negotiations on the Ship Recycling Regulation: "I welcome the outcome of the trilogue on the new Ship Recycling Regulation, which marks a major step towards more sustainable recycling of ships around the world. The new legislation will make it possible to legally recycle EU ships outside the OECD, but only in facilities that meet minimum environmentally requirements. Ship owners will be able to choose such facilities from an EU list at a reasonable price. I am convinced it will reduce the illegal practices currently blighting the industry, which will become more responsible and environmentally friendly as a result. It will also lead to investment in improving facilities to meet the new demand for better standards."

The UN’s Hong Kong convention, agreed in 2009, is not expected to enter into force until 2020. It would set labour and environmental standards for the dismantling and recycling of ocean-going cargo vessels and tankers.

The European Parliament on 18 April approved a draft regulation that would adopt the international standards. The Council of the EU, representing the 27 EU member states, on 27 June gave its political support to the Ship Recycling Regulation, which is designed to put the EU in line with the Hong Kong Convention.

  • 2020: Anticipated date for International Maritime Organization members to ratify the Hong Kong Convention on ship recycling

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