Where European ships are recycled: Asian workers pay the ultimate price

Asian workers remove asbestos from ships Photo: Adam Cohn.

Nine out of ten European ships end their lives on Southeast Asian tidal beaches recycled into scrap metals. Unprotected workers get poisoned and killed despite regulations supposed to protect life and environment.

Three international conventions and one EU-law about recycling of ships aim to protect workers and nature. They don’t.

A.P. Møller – Maersk, owner of the world’s second largest container fleet, describes the failure of protective regulations.

“Nearly 90 % of the gross tonnage recycled is handled in sub-standard health, safety and environmental conditions,” Maersk wrote in its Sustainability Report 2022.

In a comment to the EU-commission about existing regulations, Maersk noted:

“This unfortunately has led to a situation where a theoretical capacity list [of shipyards accepted for dismantling] is updated every year without any concrete hold in reality on the ground.”

One such reality on the ground can be found in Chattogram (formerly known as Chittagong) a tidal beach in Bangladesh. Here cargo ship RACE landed 2 April 2022 beached in the intertidal Sitakundu area, a 15 km long coastline subject to the tides. RACE carried a Liberian flag in the stern. It had previously carried a Maltese flag.

In Sitakundu a tide rises daily which covers hundreds of meters of beach, allowing ships to approach the shore in full speed. When the waters recede, the vessel lies on the shallow seabed, ready to be dismantled. Once the ship is beached, workers begin combing the decks, removing anything that can be resold, from furniture to radios to life jackets and asbestos. Then the process of physically demolishing the ship begins.

Asbestos and toxic fumes

Armed with blowtorches, sunglasses, and rags to cover their nose and mouth as their only protection, demolition workers begin torch cutting the ship into large pieces, hauled ashore for secondary cutting.

To the NGO Human Rights Watch workers describe using their socks as gloves to avoid burning their hands as they cut through molten steel, wrapping their shirts around their mouths to avoid inhaling toxic fumes and carrying chunks of steel barefoot.

The blocks fall onto the sand or into the water below using what in technical jargon, with a hint of irony, is called the “gravity method”. They fall into the beach or shallow water. The ship’s paint containing heavy metals and other waste settle to the bottom. It is impossible to clean them before the tide returns, taking the cut-out pieces away.

An international convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) has banned the use of asbestos or asbestos-containing materials on merchant ships worldwide from 1 January 2011. Although banned for use, the asbestos is still there dismantled by hand on Southeast Asian shores, then often resold and reused.

In Bangladesh dozens of laboratories transform sheets containing asbestos into ovens for cooking at home. The furniture shops along the coasts sell cheap “asbestos ovens”for as little as 250 Bangladeshi taka (2 Euro), popular with low-wage worker’s kitchenware, news outlet The Daily Star has reported.

The president of the Bangladesh Ship Breakers and Recyclers Association Abu Taher has been asked to comment on the accusations by Bangladesh media The Business Standard.

“There is no asbestos victim in the industry, as the ships built after 2000 do not carry any asbestos. It has been a conspiracy to shut down the prospective ship-breaking industry in Bangladesh by media and NGOs,” he said.

Navigate for the highest returns

To protect workers’ safety, health, and the environment four regulations coexist besides the ban on asbestos, one European law and three international conventions, not all of which are yet in force (see box). In this regulatory jungle the industry has been able to navigate between does and don’ts to find a solution giving the highest returns. The price of re-cycled metals and ship inventories is decisive. The ships are worth their weights in dollars per ton.

Prices depend on the demand in place of steel companies, which buy scrap for the manufacture of new steel. The prices also reflect the working conditions at the demolition sites.

To date, the yards in Asia have provided the best prices: Yards in Turkey manage to pay shipowners around 325 dollars per ton, while Pakistan and India pay around 525 dollars per ton of dissolved ships. Bangladesh is currently the cheapest last destination with ships being purchased by the yards at around $600 a ton. Medium to large cargo ships, can easily give the owners an income of 5-10 million dollars.

By giving up precautions, equipment and rights for workers, Asian dismantling companies guarantee more than competitive prices. In European, the prices vary from 50 to 150 euros per ton, as the yards have much higher expenses.

Peter Wyntin, responsible for safety, environmental and health measures at one of the shipyards authorized by the EU, Van Heyghen Recycling in Ghent, Belgium, explained:

“To remove materials such as asbestos a ship must be inserted inside a watertight structure similar to a cocoon, from which no substance can escape. This alone significantly increases disposal costs”, he told Carlotta Indiano and Fabio Papetti at IRPIMedia.

Convenience flag and cash buyers

Two factors explain the dismantling of ships on Southeast Asian beaches despite conventions and regulation:

The ships change flags and owners for their final journey. That’s why the cargo ship RACE arrived in Chittagong India under a Liberian flag although formerly known by other names and flying other nations’ flags in its stern.

The so-called flag of convenience means that ships are registered in countries that guarantee a fast procedure without following legal clauses. Nations such as Liberia, St. Kitts and Nevis, Palau, and Tuvalu, offer what is known as “last voyage packages”. By these ships can be disposed or recycled without the original owner held responsible for how it is done.

Not only the flag but also the ship owner often changes for the last journey when bought by an intermediary. These are companies known as cash buyers with the sole aim to be formal owners of a ships to be beached on an Asian shore.

“It will be enough to change the flag of the vessel you want to demolish immediately before making the last voyage to avoid legal problems. They can declare that they have had nothing to do with the sale of waste onboard and with the ship itself to an Asian scrap yard,” said Nicola Mulinaris from Shipbreaking Platform to IRPIMedia.

No masks or other protection when working with asbestos. Photo: Adam Cohn.

Those who rule the waves

“It is indisputable that the owners of the ships are able to legally circumvent the European laws by changing the flag or selling the ships,” added Nikos Mikelis, a former director for marine pollution and ship recycling at the IMO (International Maritime Organzation), an UN-body. 

The European Commission, responsible for upholding EU-law, is now evaluating the present EU Ship Recycling (EU- SRR) aimed to protect workers and environment. The regulation only accepts dismantling of ships at shipyards on a so-called European List including several shipyards in Turkey and one in the USA. The Asian shipyards where the dismantling takes place are not on the list. But by shipowners changing flags the European list gets irrelevant. EU-laws do not bind non-EU countries.

Due to convenience flags, Panama, Marshall Island and Liberia they formally own 42% of the world’s fleets. This makes them able to set the rules once the international Hong Kong Conventions comes in force in 2025.

By this the naval industry in the Western countries manages to maintain its capital and control by setting the demolishing rules through the voice of other, tiny ones, the “tax havens of naval flags”. As it happens, progress in the ratification of the Hong Kong convention came with the entry of Liberia.

These facts are well known to actors, NGOs and to the EU-commission.

“The Commissions acknowledges that the existing loopholes must be addressed. The re-flagging before dismantling is one of the main issues considered in the context of the ongoing evaluation,” a Commission official comments, while rejecting to express a comment on the record.

“After the evaluation, the Commission will swiftly assess the need to propose the modification to the EU SRR with a view to address this shortcoming,” we were told.

A licence to kill…

At the same time, the Commission is working on an update of a 2016 study on a financial instrument. This is a possible new tool to finance sound recycling condition globally based on the idea that shipowners pay a recycling licence each time their ships enter a European port.

When the ships are taken out of traffic to be dismantled the shipowners get most of the licence fee back – it the ships haves been dismantled under acceptable condition. If not, the licence fees are forfeited and kept in a fund to be used on recycling.

Such a license would be built on the assumption that Southeast Asian shipyards adopt the safety and environmental standards set by the EU-regulation and are helped by doing this by the license fee system. Should that happen, it will still take some 20 years before half of the world fleet will be “incentivised” to opt for sound recycling, an EU-study has envisaged.

Meanwhile ship company Maersk points out the interest in ship recycling is likely to grow with the interest in “green steel”, less CO2-emitting steel production than steel traditionally produced by iron and coal. This is likely to fundamentally change the recycled steel market, and render recycling more competitive in Europe, Maersk has told the Commission.

Adding to that there is an urgent need to take care of ageing ships in the “post-Panamax” category, ships too large to navigate the Panama Canal, and too large to be dismantled in existing dismantling yards. On this background Maersk has filed the following recommendation:

“We strongly encourage the European Commission to start from scratch and rethink its approach.”

Neither Maersk nor the Commission have been willing to elaborate on what such a rethink would imply.

The regulations

  • The Basel Convention adopted 1992 classifies ships destined for disposal as hazardous waste and bans beaching as a disposal method.
  • The Ban Amendment to the Basel Convention prohibits ships operating in the waters of OECD-countries (39 rich countries), to dispose them outside OECD-waters, in force since 2019.
  • The Hong Kong Convention issued 2009 by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), an UN-body, opens for dismantling in non-OECD countries but obliges ships to carry a list of hazardous components and material on board. The Hong Kong Convention will only come in force 2025.
  • The EU Ship Recycling Regulation (EU-SSR) in force since 2013 is stricter than the Hong Kong Convention. But by nature, an EU-law only covers ships under EU members states’ flags. The EU-SSR is now under revision.

This story is part of a cross-border investigation on asbestos in ships. It is made with support from Journalismfund Europe. Edited by Katharine Quarmby.

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