Conventional methods

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Several sets of guidelines are now available to help ship dismantlers adhere to the 2009 Hong Kong Convention for environmentally sound ship recycling.

January 7, 2014
Brian Taylor

Ship dismantling practices have received considerable scrutiny and criticism at times during the previous 10 years, both from protectors of worker health and safety in the developing world and from environmental advocates worldwide.

Much of the criticism focused on dismantling practices as they were taking place in nations including India and Bangladesh, where vessels from around the world were routinely being towed for dismantling and recycling. Critics contended that contractors and recyclers there were winning bids for these dismantling contracts in large part by ignoring environmental and worker safety and health best practices, and the critics often took photos and video clips to verify their claims.

In part as a response to these investigations, the United Nations International Maritime Organization (IMO) and other organizations held several meetings that culminated in the 2009 Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships (the Hong Kong Convention or HKC). The document was drafted at a diplomatic conference held in Hong Kong in May 2009 that was attended by delegates from 63 countries.

The document is not yet in force anywhere in the world, but subsequently the IMO has released and amended several sets of guidelines that the organization says “have been developed and adopted to assist [nations] in the early implementation of the convention’s technical standards.”

Out with the old

The HKC is about more than standardization. It is “aimed at ensuring that ships, when being recycled after reaching the end of their operational lives, do not pose any unnecessary risks to human health, safety and to the environment,” according to the IMO’s website,

The need for the document to be drawn up and adopted by nations around the world can be construed as an admission that some prior ship dismantling practices were causing environmental woes, injuries, sickness and even fatalities.

In 2005, Greenpeace and the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) jointly issued a report on shipbreaking practices in India and Bangladesh. On the environmental front, the report notes that significant amounts of asbestos, mercury and other heavy metals can be found in end-of-life vessels.

Asbestos can be found in heat-resisting or heat-absorbing capacities near engine and boiler casings, electrical cables, fire-safe doors and other parts of the engine room and the ship that require heat protection.

Mercury, lead and other heavy metals are found in switches, thermometers, light fittings, batteries and in insulation capacities on vessels. Often along for the voyage also, even if a ship is drained of its fluids, are petroleum compounds and other chemicals that still coat pipes and conduits throughout the ship.

The two organizations say the presence of these elements and substances can cause ill health effects among workers. These materials also may leech into the sand or soil where shipbreaking activities are taking place.

Regarding worker safety, the report’s authors write, “Gujarat Maritime Board in India records 37 [deaths] due to accidents from the beginning of shipbreaking activities in 1983 up to mid-2004. But, when compared to eyewitness statements, these official figures about deaths by accidents seem largely underestimated. In Bangladesh there are no records kept, neither by yard owners nor by the authorities. The only written sources are the reports of local media. We estimate that at least 1,000 people have died in [the city of] Chittagong due to accidents over the last decades.”

Whether causing worker health and safety issues or environmental problems, the Greenpeace and FIDH authors report that the shipbreaking practices they witnessed included “the illicit transfer and dumping of toxic waste to developing countries in the form of old vessels is a blatant breach of the UN Basel Convention regime that was carefully designed precisely to protect developing countries.”

A rising tide

The attention to the issue and the global response has already made a difference, according to Nikos Mikelis, a nonexecutive director of Global Marketing Systems (GMS), Cumberland, Md., one of the world’s largest buyers of obsolete vessels.

“The HKC is not in force but nevertheless it has started affecting ship recycling in a positive way,” says Mikelis. “In India the requirements that were imposed on the industry by the Indian Supreme Court in late 2007 were based on the requirements of the then draft HKC. India has, therefore, seen some important improvements in line with HKC. In Bangladesh the government has also imposed new technical requirements on ship recycling from 2011, and these requirements, to a large extent, have been based on HKC.”

Added buoyancy

When ship dismantling makes the news in the United States, it often involves reports of unsafe practices in South Asia or NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) opposition to shipbreaking efforts in the U.S.

Nonetheless, some ship dismantling and recycling is taking place in the U.S., such as in Brownsville, Texas, where All Star Metals LLC operates as what it calls “a licensed and approved” ship recycler providing services to the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) agency of the federal government.

All Star, since 2012 a subsidiary of Scrap Metal Services LLC (SMS), Burnham, Ill., has been operating since 2003 and in the past has taken on vessels including oil barges and the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Cabot.

Its workforce will be kept busy throughout 2014 with the task of dismantling another Navy aircraft carrier, the USS Forrestal. “This is the largest aircraft carrier ever to be dismantled of this size and scope,” says Richard Gertler, chief operating officer of SMS.

Gertler adds, “All Star Metals was the first USA-owned and operated facility to be awarded this size aircraft carrier due to its environmental and safety compliance, its financial stability and strength and know-how to tackle this big venture.”

In Europe, Welsh ship dismantling firm Swansea Drydocks has been awarded defense contracts in that country and is currently dismantling and recycling the former HMS Cornwall, a Royal Navy frigate that was built in 1985 and was decommissioned in 2011.

“Developing Swansea Drydocks into a world-class ship repair and recycling facility has been a huge challenge,” said Karl Dunn, managing director of the firm, when the Royal Navy contract was announced. “It’s taken us several years of hard work and significant investment to be in a position to win this tender. As a result, we are beginning to achieve the goals we set for the business and we anticipate substantial growth over the next few years.”

The measures taken by the governments of India and Bangladesh will be necessary if they intend to become signatories to the HKC. Natasha Brown, a public information services officer with the IMO, points to Article 4 of the HKC when saying, “Parties to the treaty will be required to implement it.”

Article 4, in a section titled “Controls related to Ship Recycling,” states:

  • “Each party shall require that ships entitled to fly its flag or operating under its authority comply with the requirements set forth in this convention and shall take effective measures to ensure such compliance
  • “Each party shall require that ship recycling facilities under its jurisdiction comply with the requirements set forth in this convention and shall take effective measures to ensure such compliance.”

The full text of the HKC as well as links to guidelines that have subsequently been released are available at

In addition to government agencies, owners of decommissioned vessels also have been made aware through the activist, media and diplomatic dialog that they will be expected to steer vessels toward safer harbors.

Says Mikelis, “The owners of some ships are implementing on a voluntary basis parts of the HKC, such as inventories of hazardous materials and requiring recycling yards to comply with the standards of the HKC.”

According to the IMO’s Brown, navies around the world “are not covered by the HKC, though governments are encouraged to apply the standards.”

Whether cargo vessels or military vessels are being scrapped, Mikelis says change is occurring, though sometimes slowly and sometimes because of additional government intervention, as in the European Union, where a new ship recycling regulation takes force in early 2014.

Lasting difference

For the HKC to make a genuine difference, it will have to be adopted by the nations that are most active in ship dismantling.

According to the IMO, the convention is open for adoption by any nation. However, it will “enter into force 24 months after the date on which 15 states, representing 40 percent of world merchant shipping by gross tonnage, have either signed it without reservation as to ratification, acceptance or approval or have deposited instruments of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession with the [United Nations].”

Mikelis says the key to that adoption date lies with a handful of nations, and those nations do not likely want to be at a competitive disadvantage when the HKC goes into force.

“When the HKC enters into force, it will apply to countries that have acceded to the convention, and, therefore, in the beginning it will create two separate markets for the recycling of ships: one compliant with the HKC and the other noncompliant,” he comments. “As five countries (Bangladesh, China, India, Pakistan and Turkey) recycle 97 to 98 percent of all recycled tonnage, it is hoped that once or if all five have acceded to the HKC, then this will become a global standard which will be part of shipping’s normality.”

In the past several years, attempts to boost ship dismantling in the U.S. and Europe have been made (See the sidebar, “Added Buoyancy,” on page S64.), but to what extent the industry is shifting away from Asia is still unclear.

All-Star Metals LLC, Brownsville, Texas, recently was awarded the dismantling contract for U.S. Navy aircraft carrier the USS Forrestal. All-Star is a subsidiary of Scrap Metal Services LLC (SMS), Burnham, Ill. Richard Gertler, the chief operating officer of SMS, says All-Star was awarded the contract “due to its environmental and safety compliance, its financial stability and strength and know-how to tackle this big venture.”

Mikelis is not convinced that such contracts represent a larger trend. “The effect of the HKC in improving the competitiveness of European and U.S. recyclers compared to the established major recycling centers in Asia, I believe, is small,” he comments. “The price differential between Europe and South Asia is not only based on the difference of standards of compliance but primarily on the different cost of living (and, therefore, labor costs).”

As well, says Mikelis, steel mills, foundries and even rolling mills in South Asia have grown to rely on the metals harvested through ship dismantling.

He notes that when dismantling a ship it is possible to separate steel by flat plates and lengths of girders, beams and angle bars. Steel plate in particular can be reused directly in construction applications or it can be rerolled into bars or rods at rolling mills.

Mikelis says the rerolling process is simpler and demands less energy compared with melting steel scrap, helping keep costs down for Bangladeshi steel producers while allowing ship recyclers there to fetch a price about 10 percent higher for rerollable scrap.

To what extent, if any, the HKC shifts the geography of ship dismantling remains unclear. If the intent of the document’s authors is met, however, safe and environmentally sound methods of recycling obsolete vessels will become the standard no matter where they are dismantled.


The author is editor of Recycling Today and can be contacted at