Old ships are torn to pieces in unregulated shipbreaking yards around the world, releasing harmful chemicals. But German and Chinese experts are getting onboard with new global regulations to improve standards.
Many products containing materials considered hazardous to the environment or human health are subject to strict environmental laws that regulate how they must be recycled after becoming redundant. Such is the case with cars and consumer electronics – but ships have regularly fallen outside of regulation. That's about to change.
The Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships requires all new vessels to carry detailed inventories of hazardous materials throughout their years of service. This is provided to the recycling facility when the ship is retired. Shipbreaking yards can be notoriously dangerous places where workers are exposed to harmful chemicals. So, the convention also calls for workers to be equipped with protective gear.
The convention has not yet been ratified, but work is underway to get 15 states representing 40 percent of world merchant shipping onboard. According to the more optimistic estimates, that could happen as early as 2015. The regulation, prepared by member states of the UN's International Maritime Organisation will catalog all problematic substances used during construction so that recycling yards know how to deal with retired vessels. Most ships sail for about 25 years before being dismantled.
Although ships are made mostly of steel, they contain a relatively small but critical level of hazardous substances, according to Gerhard Aulbert, an environmental engineer at the ship classification society Germanischer Lloyd. In an interview with DW, Aulbert explained that at around 5 percent of the materials used to make a ship are hazardous. "The most concern is related to asbestos, and maybe heavy metals as well," he said.
Salvage yards will be required to provide specific plans detailing how ships will be recycled. All signatory countries to the convention must implement and enforce laws ensuring that the regulations are followed. When the convention comes into force, ships from signatory countries can only be scrapped at yards that conform to the rules.
China sails ahead
"The Hong Kong Convention is one of the first examples (of) where really the IMO has developed regulations for the shipyards and the recycling yards," said Wolfgang Hintzsche, Marine Director of the German Ship Owners Association, noting that the current regulations for ships "end more or less at the coastline or in the ports."
China has already indicated that it plans to implement the Hong Kong Convention. Representatives from the China National Ship Recycling Association expressed pride about their country's capacities for ship recycling during a meeting of ship experts in Hamburg earlier this month.
"In China, the ship recycling industry has been developing over the past 30 years," said association president Xie Dehua. The Chinese government, he added, supports efforts by recycling yards to end the practice of beaching ships for scrapping in favor of recycling them in docks or harbours. And the Chinese recycling industry is benefitting as a result.
Cheap ship beaching
According to the association, 22 out of China's 61 salvage yards are now equipped for "green" ship recycling. And more are to follow. The downside is that China's advanced recycling infrastructure makes scrapping in the country more expensive. As long as the Hong Kong Convention isn't in force, it's easy for ship owners to sell their old vessels to ship scrap yards in India, Pakistan or Bangladesh, where standards are lower.
Activists say dirty shipbreaking practices lead to accidents that harm workers and even result in the release of asbestos, oil, toxic paint and heavy metals along shorelines.
Once the convention is implemented, ship owners from signatory countries will no longer be able to use unregulated shipbreaking yards, Xie said. It's one of the reasons why his organisation is lobbying the Chinese government to quickly ratify the convention.
"We do face competition from countries like India and Bangladesh," he said. "When you compare the prices, we're at a disadvantage. But now more and more countries as well as the ship owners realize their responsibility to society. We see it as a great opportunity for the Chinese recycling yards."
But even if the Hong Kong Convention is implemented quickly, it will take years for all ship owners and salvage yards to fall in line, explained Aulbert from Germanischer Lloyd. It took nearly 'a generation' to educate people about how to separate different kinds of household wastes in Germany, he said, pointing to a similar situation in the ship recycling business. "It will also take nearly a generation to bring the awareness for hazardous materials to such a level that everybody is caring properly for these kind of hazardous materials."
For now, ship owners from a number of European countries, including Germany, abide by a set of self-imposed transitional measures closely modelled on the draft convention.