Shipbreaking is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, according to the International Labor Organization. Shipbreaking is the process of breaking up huge old ships into spare parts. It almost always happens in developing countries and comes with an excessively high level of fatalities, injuries and work-related diseases.
In November 2016, 17 people were killed in a series of explosions on an oil tanker at a shipbreaking yard in Gadani, Pakistan. In 2019 alone, it was reported that 26 shipbreakers died in Bangladesh. This is an industry that can be improved to be so much safer.
The process of shipbreaking is useful as much as it is important. After 30 years, a ship’s structural strength deteriorates and becomes unprofitable to repair and maintain. That being said, it’s good to extract any valuable materials like steel, iron, aluminium, and plastics, for any necessary recycling. Recycling it is a lot better than letting the ship sink or abandonment. It’s also economical too.
The majority of end-life ships are dismantled and sold to South Asian countries of India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. In recent years, it’s common to see it in West African countries of Nigeria and Ghana. It is said that in those countries, ship-recycling is especially a lucrative industry. It supports many livelihoods and serves as a source of raw materials for local industries.
One person in Lagos, Nigeria we interviewed as part of our academic research on shipbreaking told us that “local youths scavenge for heavy metals such as copper, brass and bronze from the ships (especially the propeller)”. He claimed the propeller alone could fetch as much as £40,000. In Bangladesh, it is estimated that about 36,000 people are employed in shipbreaking, and half of the country’s total steel is salvaged from dismantled ships.
Impact on Societies and Environment
It has become very clear that when these ships reach the end of their lives, they pose a threat to people and the ship’s environment. A 2010 World Bank report says that by 2030 Bangladesh and Pakistan would have accumulated millions of tonnes of hazardous waste from shipbreaking.
This would include 85,000 tonnes of asbestos, 256,000 tonnes of hazardous chemicals known as PCBs, mainly from cables, 225,000 tonnes of ozone-depleting substances, 75,000 tonnes of paints containing heavy metals and toxins, 720 tonnes of heavy metals, nearly 2.2 million cubic metres of liquid organic waste and over a million tonnes of other hazardous wastes. Similar studies have also shown shipbreaking pollutes its surrounding sediment and seawater, harming nearby marine life and risking the livelihoods of fishermen.
Despite the many benefits of shipbreaking, the human and environmental costs mean people need something more sustainable. This is what Olalekan Adekola (Geography lecturer from York St John University) and Md Jahir Rizvi (Mechanical and Marine Engineering lecturer from Plymouth University) investigated in their academic research throughout late 2018 and 2019.
Part of the problem is how companies are avoiding regulations. According to the NGO Shipbreaking Platform, in 2017, about 80% of the world’s end-of-life tonnage was broken under rudimentary conditions on the beaches of Alang in India, Chittagong in Bangladesh and Gadani in Pakistan.
As pointed out by someone we interviewed in our research, these ships often end up in a developing country after being brought there under the guise of being operational but with the intention of being scrapped. By doing this, many shipping firms from developed countries especially in Europe can evade environmental and workplace legislation at home. But while there are established challenges like this, dangerous shipbreaking is also very much a design issue.
Pushing for Sustainable Ship Recycling
In Olalekan Adekola and Md Jahir Rizvi’s new study, they review the existing methods that are currently used by shipbreaking yards. They found that none were completely effective at controlling the spread of hazardous materials.
For example, “beaching” is the most popular technique, as it takes advantage of natural beaches with high tidal zones and long mudflats and as such that needs minimal additional infrastructure. The ship is first anchored just offshore where easily removable items are taken away to make it as light as possible. Then during high tide, the ship is shifted to the mudflat where it is fully broken down. As beaching contaminates the mudflats and the surrounding environments, it is not considered environmentally friendly.
They have instead come up with a sustainable and environmentally-friendly process, one that shipbreakers in developing countries can implement without sustaining any significant costs. Both Olalekan Adekola and Md Jahir Rizvi propose performing the entire shipbreaking process on a specially constructed bed rather than a muddy surface.
The bed will be made of 4 layers, using concrete materials, pebbles and sand. As each layer will have a different level of porosity and the ability to regulate how materials pass through it. Hazardous materials and wastes will be trapped effectively and not be able to reach the base of the bed – or flow into the sea.
Their modelling reflects that this will restrict the concentration of hazardous materials and minimize or even eliminate the chances of these materials contaminating the surrounding environment. At the same time, their proposed approach is sustainable on 3 levels:
- It protects the environment
- Allows shipbreaking activities to continue benefiting livelihoods and reduces resource extraction
- Uses mostly natural materials that are readily available, affordable and reusable
They equally recognize institutional challenges. Among their proposals are an international operational framework for shipbreaking, and extending the idea of extended producer responsibility to ship makers and shipping companies. This means they will (and should) be responsible for after-sale waste, as is sometimes the case with electronic waste.
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