Shipbreaking is a dangerous, and dangerously under-regulated job (Photo: Stéphane M. Grueso/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Giant ships are some of the coolest things humanity has ever endeavored to build. But what happens to these massive ships when they’ve reached the end of their service is often an environmental and human rights disaster. 

Shipbreaking, or the process of taking apart the colossal vessels that keep worldwide shipping afloat, is a complicated and expensive process, and currently there is no clean or easy way to do it.

At any given time there are around 50,000 large ships sailing the seas, including oil tankers, large container ships, and other giant vessels that facilitate global trade. Our increasingly interconnected world has resulted in more ships being built and put into service, but this has also increased the number of ships that need to be decommissioned. 

Workers climb aboard a ship in Chittagong, Bangladesh (Photo: Stéphane M. Grueso/CC BY-SA 2.0)

A large ship usually operates for around 25-30 years before reaching what is known as its “end of life” phase, some even being retired after only 15 years for reasons as regrettable as not being needed due to lower-than-expected shipping demand.Nowadays, around 1,000 ships are sold for breaking each year. Unfortunately, throwing these ships away is an expensive, and complicated process—if ship owners bother doing it right. 

“A ship owner can earn a lot more money by selling to a substandard yard which has not invested in infrastructure, nor in a proper workforce, nor in proper downstream waste management,” says Ingvild Jenssen, Founder & Policy Advisor of the NGO Shipbreaking Platform, the preeminent environmental and worker’s rights advocacy group for the shipbreaking industry. 

The two main concerns in shipbreaking are the environmental effects and the working conditions. Modern ships are minefields of toxic oils, gases, heavy metals, asbestos, and chemicals that can be found in the walls, pipes, gears, and even paint. When a ship is broken down, these pollutants can be released into the environment around the site (read: the ocean), if not dealt with properly, and these same volatile substances pose a threat to the workers as well.

Most of the cutting is done by a high-powered torch (Photo: Stéphane M. Grueso/CC BY-SA 2.0)

In the largest shipbreaking yards in the world (in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India), ships are taken apart by a largely untrained, migrant workforce from the poor villages just inland from the beaches, who dismantle the vessels by hand without proper equipment or safety standards in place. Essentially, people show up and are told to destroy towering steel ships, which have been dragged ashore, with little more than a blowtorch and some elbow grease.

In Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world, one report estimates that at least 20 percent of the workforce (more than 100,000 workers at any given time) is under the age of 15, having been drawn to the shipbreaking yards to earn money for their families back home, sometimes replacing an older family member who was injured or killed doing the work before them. For many of the children and teens who end up at the yards, their work is the only thing keeping their families afloat. While child labor laws do exist, they are simply ignored. Each year people die and become injured by falling steel plates.   

In addition to falling parts and myriad other possible calamities that might occur, the toxic materials pose a special threat. “The most common causes of accidents are explosions,” says Jenssen. “When they are torch-cutting, and they cut over a pipeline where there’s oil, you’ll have a big explosion. Or they’ll enter into confined areas of the vessel where gas has accumulated, and they’ll start with the torch-cutting, and there’ll be an explosion.” A single explosion can injure or even kill an entire crew of workers.         

As recently as the 1970s, shipbreaking was not uncommon in European dry docks and yards, but as health, safety, and environmental regulation increased, the practice moved to the shores of poorer and less developed areas. There the industry can operate on the cheap, with little to no oversight.

As shipbreaking has spread and become more hazardous, international law has tried to regulate the industry, with little success. Once ships are set to be destroyed, they are considered a hazardous waste product. Acts like the non-U.S.-ratified Basel Convention, an international treaty stating that participating countries cannot ship out their hazardous waste to other countries, have curbed some of the ships arriving to the major shipbreaking ports, but not in any significant way. “The problem is that the existing legislation is extremely easy to circumvent,” says Jenssen.

The process generally breaks down like this: the owner of an end-of-life ship may be a part of a Basel country—say, the United Kingdom—but because of the country’s regulations and the expense involved, they decide to sell the vessel to one of the less reputable shipyards in another country. The owner will sail the ship out of the country under the guise of further operation, then adopt the flag of some other country that doesn’t abide the waste conventions.

Some countries even offer these “flags of convenience” at a discount to end-of-life vessels. Under the auspices of this new country, the ship is then sold, for cash, to a shipbreaking yard in, say, Bangladesh (70 percent of the world’s end-of-life ships are sold to unregulated yards in either Pakistan, Bangladesh, or India). From there, the ships are broken down, mainly to harvest their raw steel which is then rerolled into rebar and used in local construction. Most of the shipbreaking companies in these areas have strong ties to the local construction companies, and the local economies rely on metal salvaged from the ships.

A sunny day in Chittagong. (Photo: Stéphane M. Grueso/CC BY-SA 2.0)

This is not to say that all shipbreaking occurs under terrible conditions. Countries including China, the U.S., and the U.K. operate increasingly conscientious yards with dry docks and proper oversight. “The European Union is about to publish a list of accepted facilities world-wide, these facilities will have to meet high environmental and social standards.” says Jenssen. Facilities in China and Turkey will likely appear on the list, but not those in Bangladesh, Pakistan, or India.

Even with increasing attention to safety concerns, the ships themselves are still being built containing hazardous materials and non-recyclable parts. As Jenssen sees it, in an ideal world, vessels would be built with a “cradle-to-cradle” mindset. “Vessels would be built in a clean way, they would not contain toxic materials,” she says. “Pieces would even be able to be reused in the building of new vessels.” Ideally these dream vessels would be created in a yards that ensured no toxins leaked out and that provided the cranes and other equipment that would keep the workers safe.

For the time being, getting rid of giant ships is neither cheap nor easy, and only a major, industry-wide overhaul could make it that way.