Pressure is building for mandatory international rules that ensure the safe and environmentally sound recycling of ships to finally enter force, more than 10 years after they were first adopted, with a number of high-profile incidents adding to the cause (see box story).

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) in 2009 drew up the Hong Kong Convention, to ensure that ships at the end of their working lives were safely disposed, in a way that was not detrimental to the health of the, mainly Asian, workers engaged in their dismantling, nor to their immediate environment. But the rules have never been ratified by enough countries with a large enough proportion of the world fleet to come into effect.

That situation may be about to change, however, with several countries having ratified the deal already this year, and IMO Secretary-General, Kitack Lim, now urging others to follow suit.

India has just become the 15th flag state to accede to the Convention, joining Belgium, Congo, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Ghana, Japan, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Panama, Serbia and Turkey. This is significant because a minimum of 15 states is one of the three criteria needed for the Convention to take effect two years later – but the combined gross tonnage of their merchant fleets and annual recycling volumes still fall short of IMO requirements.

However, India being such an important ship recycling nation means its accession to the HK Convention is seen as a major breakthrough.

The Convention covers not only the dismantling process itself, but also the design, construction, operation and maintenance of ships and preparations for their environmentally sound recycling – formerly referred to as ship ‘scrapping’ or ‘demolition’, in line with current concerns over the need for a circular economy.

Under the treaty, vessels have to carry an Inventory of Hazardous Materials (IHM) – such as asbestos, heavy metals, hydrocarbons, ozone-depleting substances and others – that they are carrying. That IHM is periodically checked during the vessel’s operational life, at the end of which the chosen recycling yard has to draw up a customised Ship Recycling Plan tailored to the hazardous materials it contains.

Already the net is closing on substandard disposal of tonnage, at least for European Union flag states. In 2013 the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union adopted a Ship Recycling Regulation (EU SRR), embodying key principles of the Hong Kong Convention.

Already all European-flag newbuilding’s constructed after 1 January, 2019, have to carry a valid IHM certificate, and from 31 December, 2020, even non-European-flag vessels will have to carry a statement from their flag State, including an IHM if they plan to call at ports in the European Economic Area.

In addition, the EU law goes a step further and requires all large commercial seagoing vessels flying the flag of an EU Member State to only be recycled at facilities included in the European List of Approved Ship Recycling Facilities.

The European Commission conducts periodic site inspections of ship recycling yards and regularly updates its list. However, the vast majority of approved yards lie within the EU itself, with only three on its latest list, all in Turkey, lying outside. This despite the fact that the largest ship recycling nations are all located in southern or eastern Asia – namely Bangladesh (notably in Chittagong), India (Alang), Pakistan and China.

Notably the EU restrictions outlaw ‘beaching’, a practice currently prevalent in the Indian subcontinent, where ships are deliberately grounded on a beach and broken apart by hand there, instead of in an industrial site, and often with minimal enforcement of environmental and safety rules. According to campaigning body Shipbreaking Platform NGO, more than 6,000 ships have been beached in South Asia since 2009, resulting in 390 worker deaths and 251 serious injuries.

“Currently, a vast majority of large vessels are dismantled in poor social and environmental conditions in South Asia,” states the European Commission in its description of the EU SSR policy, which it says is intended to make ship recycling “safer and greener”.

Classification society Bureau Veritas (BV) is already calling on all shipowners to prepare for the need to carry an IHM and Statement of Compliance, ahead of next year’s EU SSR deadline. ‘These challenges are becoming pressing,’ BV Solutions president Paul Shrieve said recently, ‘with Port State Control already enforcing IHM and end-of-life requirements.”

BV therefore urges the shipping industry to proactively adopt ship recycling ‘best practice’ ahead of any statutory requirement to do so. To assist in this, it has drawn up a list of Ten Compliance Tips for shipping companies, that it described as “a simple roadmap towards understanding how and when they are affected by the Hong Kong Convention and EU requirements, what they are required to do, the steps to take to develop and maintain an IHM, and the benefits and risks to consider in their end-of-life recycling decisions.”

Shrieve also encouraged shipping companies “to then publish their IHM and recycling policies, in order to share the benefits of a more transparent and progressive approach to ship recycling.”


High-profile incidents

Public concern over the health, safety and environmental impact of ship recycling has been heightened by a series of high-profile international incidents over the past 15 years, all highlighting the secrecy and often shady dealings surrounding ship demolition.

The French aircraft carrier Clemenceau, laden with 700 tonnes of asbestos between her decks, was decommissioned in 1997 and the hull eventually sold to a Spanish company in 2003.

The buyer had agreed to remove the asbestos within the EU before the ship left Toulon, but instead began towing the ship to Turkey, a country with lower health and safety standards than the EU, and France cancelled the deal.

Later, in 2005, the French government tried to send Clemenceau to Alang, India for demolition but several countries refused to let the vessel call on route. She was briefly boarded by Greenpeace activists, and then Egyptian authorities initially blocked the vessel’s passage through the Suez Canal on safety grounds before relenting; the European Commission also demanded an explanation for the vessel’s dispatch to India.

But in February 2006 the Indian High Court banned the vessel from entering the country’s territorial waters, forcing France to finally order the vessel back home.

Eventually the Clemenceau was broken up at a specialist yard in the UK in 2009.

More recently, in 2016, the FPSO (Floating Production Storage and Offloading) platform North Sea Producer was towed to Bangladesh and beached for recycling, after having been laid up in the UK for several years.

However, 17 years’ work in the North Sea had left the vessel with radioactive material in her hull, and investigative journalists raised the alarm as under EU law, since the ship contained hazardous material she could only be sold to a facility within the OECD.

It was subsequently found that the contract provided to UK authorities to allow the vessel to leave under tow falsely stated that a new owner had been found who would be operating the ship in Nigeria – whereas in fact, a cash buyer had bought the vessel for scrap and towed her straight to Bangladesh.

A furore erupted in the international press, forcing the ship’s owner to publicly apologise, while in Bangladesh, environmental lawyers succeeded in getting an injunction against breaking up the radioactive ship, with litigation believed to be still ongoing.