Twelve months ago the scrapping of a vessel was regarded as little more than the natural end of its life-cycle, the ultimate fate of an asset which had outlived its commercial usefulness. If the subject hit the headlines, it was usually either because too few ships were being scrapped or too few yards were offering scrapping facilities for the economic well-being of the industry.
Now there is a new dimension, with growing concern about the environmental and social conditions of the ship disposal facilities, principally in the Indian sub-continent. The situation is complex. Selling ships for scrapping is categorically not a devious means of disposing of hazardous waste, and it should not be portrayed as such. Nor, according to the latest legal analyses, is it contrary to international conventions. Both the economic fortunes of the shipping industry and the campaign for high standards of operation require the removal of ships which are sub-standard or have reached the end of their economic life.
On the other hand, it is an unchallenged fact that most ships on arrival at a decommissioning yard contain operational wastes, and almost all today's '60s and '70s built vessels were constructed with significant quantities of materials requiring proper handling, including asbestos and PCBs, as part of their basic structure and equipment. Furthermore, it is clear that working conditions in the yards are lower than would be acceptable in the developed world.
Ship scrapping is a labour intensive industry, and the yards are therefore concentrated in parts of the world where labour costs are low. Ships abound in recyclable materials, notably steel, and the scope for reusing such materials - in principle an environmentally preferable practice to other forms of disposal - is greater in the developing world than elsewhere, providing important employment opportunities in otherwise depressed areas.
The environmental concerns have been voiced most loudly in Europe, but the problem is a global one, which demands global solutions. The Government of Norway has raised the matter in IMO and it will first be discussed there in mid-1999. However, IMO discussions will be difficult because there are so many issues at stake, and it must be arguable whether even the long arm of IMO can extend to the recycling yards themselves, where the main problem lies.
In the meantime, therefore, ICS has formed a working group to try to analyse the problem and see whether a set of principles or recommendations could be adopted by the shipping industry. Is it always known what hazardous materials are contained in vessels sold out of service? Is it practicable to minimise operational wastes prior to delivery? What facilities are currently available in the yards? What can be done to encourage greater environmental and personnel protection as ships are scrapped? The solutions are not easy, but a problem has been identified and a practical response must be found.
More information: Marisec