Ask someone in the United States what happens to ocean-going ships at the end of their service life and they’ll likely describe National Geographic pictures of ships on beaches in some foreign country, with sandal-clad workers using hammers and cutting torches to take them apart. However, these recycling methods are destined to become a relic of the past. The future will be one where workers wear appropriate safety equipment. It will also be one where ships are not simply driven onto a beach. And it will be one largely driven by changes mandated by the European Union.
The future began in 2009 when the International Maritime Organization adopted the Hong Kong Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships. The goal of the convention is to ensure that ships are dismantled in conditions that do not pose “unnecessary risk to human health and safety or to the environment.” Surprisingly, the convention does not ban beaching. It will only enter into force twenty-four months after ratification by fifteen states, representing forty percent of world merchant shipping by gross tonnage, and combined maximum annual ship recycling volume not less than three per cent of their combined tonnage.
Norway was the first country to ratify the convention. Congo, France, Belgium, Panama, and Turkey followed suit, and on May 9, the Danish Parliament passed a law enabling Denmark to ratify it. Unfortunately, these seven countries aren’t enough, and more countries must act to bring the Hong Kong Convention into force.
The slow pace of the convention’s ratification has allowed the European Union to become the new standard-bearer for change. In 2013, the EU passed a regulation wherein all EU flagged ships are required to be dismantled in EU-approved facilities. The first list of approved facilities was released in December 2016, and all were within the EU.
When the list was released, the European Community Shipowners’ Associations immediately questioned why non-EU facilities were left off. “Approximately 150 container vessels were sent for recycling in 2016, the current EU list would cater for only 16 smaller container vessels . . . We thus strongly encourage the Commission to enlarge the list to non-EU facilities as soon as possible,” the association said in a statement.
There is a strong likelihood the EU will certify some non-EU facilities but not all of them, especially those that employ beaching methods. And that’s why India, Bangladesh, China, Pakistan, and Turkey are paying attention. These countries dismantle the majority of the world’s ships and many of their facilities still employ the beaching method.
The French environmental advocacy group Robin Des Bois estimates that in the first quarter of 2017, “225 ships out 240 were being demolished in India, in Bangladesh, in Pakistan, in China and in Turkey . . . [and only] 5 ships are being broken up in European facilities.”
In the United States, President Donald J. Trump has issued several executive orders that benefit the US ship recycling industry. Specifically, President Trump directed that pipelines be built with US steel. There is a lot of steel in obsolete U.S. commercial and military ships, and it can be re-used to make pipes. The Steel Manufacturers Association and the Specialty Steel Industry of North America estimate that the U.S. steel industry recycled 70 millions tons of scrap last year, conserving energy and reducing the burden on landfills.
So what will the remainder of 2017 look like for ship recyclers? First, the EU will continue to set the standards for world-wide dismantlement. China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Turkey will seek EU certification of their ship recycling facilities highlighting their new environmental and safety measures. And the United States will implement the President’s “America First” strategy and the steel from dismantled commercial and military ships will be used in infrastructure projects. All of these efforts will produce a world wide ship recycling industry that is safer for workers, the environment and the world.
K. Denise Rucker Krepp is the government relations counsel for shipbreaking firm EMR USA.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.