The majority of European ships are scrapped years later in Southeast Asian coastal junkyards under questionable working conditions and environmental controls. The EU is looking for ways to improve the situation.
A seven-kilometer-long (4.3-mile) stretch of beach in Bangladesh is providing work for around 150,000 people. The largest ship scrap yard in the world has emerged near the city of Chittagong in the last four decades here. Around 40 percent of high seas vessels removed from service worldwide are stripped down and broken apart here each year. Sales of doors, kitchens or beds from the ships is booming around Chittagong.
Poor working conditions
Other countries in the region, such as Pakistan and India, also serve as the end destination for many ships. But the business has a dark side: low wages for workers, poor security standards and environment impacts from substances released as the ships are dismantled.
Filmmaker Shaheen Dill-Riaz observed the junkyards in 2008 and said, "There are injuries caused by falling ship parts or tears in ropes, through which the workers can lose a leg or an arm - that's simply part of everyday life there."
In his German-language film "Eisenfresser" (Iron Eaters), Dill-Riaz, who is from Bangladesh but has lived in Germany since 1992, illustrates the difficult conditions ship junkyard workers encounter.
Dill-Riaz says he finds it especially disgraceful that the Bangladeshi government as well as European shipping companies, from the fleets of which around 75 percent of the boats in question come, simply look away.
"One doesn't just leave old automobiles sitting out somewhere," the filmmaker explained, adding, "You have to bear the costs of getting rid of it - why shouldn't it work that way with ships, too? It's just a question of will."
Sharing the burden
The European Union now wants to see European shipping companies take on more responsibility for disposal of the vessels. Currently, ships in service in Europe can be sold to non-EU countries after about eight years, and only scrapped many years later. Under this scheme, the costs for doing so fell to the most recent owner, rather than the first owner.
Thanks to an initiative by members of the European Parliament, European shippers may soon have to pay three cents per ton freighted into a special fund once they dock at EU harbors. For a 100,000 ton shipment, that translates to a 3,000-euro fee, which will then flow to junkyard operations in Southeast Asia. It's a kind of disposal tax, which would be intended to improve working conditions and environmental standards.
But European shipping companies seem disinclined to share the costs for ship scrapping.
"The fact that a ship landing in a junkyard after however many years may originally have had a German owner does not mean that this first owner should be held responsible for some unapproved scrap disposal," said Ralf Nagel, head of the Association of German Shippers (VDR).
Nagel would prefer to see quick implementation of existing regulations, like the Hong Kong Convention of 2009, which establishes that scrap disposal must take place under humane and environmentally-friendly conditions. The Hong Kong Convention has yet to be ratified.
"The suggestions from Brussels will undermine this agreement," Nagel believes, adding: "Which doesn't help the people one is intending to help at all."
Nagel rejects the disposal fund proposal as a "solely EU" solution in which the collected money is unlikely to actually arrive in Southeast Asia. Even if the money lands in the right place, the VDR head says that wouldn't solve the problem: "The European Parliament has good intentions, but it would really only create at best a few green recycling islands - but no concrete help for the people there."
Seeking a solution
Dill-Riaz also points a finger at the UN's International Maritime Organization (IMO).
"The IMO could compel its members to bear some responsibility - the organization is aware of who is selling these ships, but doesn't own up to that," the filmmaker said.
But the ship junkyards cannot be closed, despite questionable on-site conditions, Dill-Riaz added. "It would be unfair to the people - they've been doing it for 40, 50 years. That's part of the economy; people are involved. You have to find a solution within the system."
Despite the enormous investments costs, new and more modern disposal docks could be built, Dill-Riaz says. People would then have a safer and greener coastal workplace.