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Scrapping Lives: The Export of Toxic Ships to Asia

A Greenpeace/Basel Action Network Fact Sheet



At the end of their life-span ocean-going ships are scrapped, primarily for their recyclable steel content. There are about 45,000 such vessels in the world, each year about 700 of them are sold to brokers for scrapping in Asia.

Ship scrapping, or shipbreaking, is a dirty and dangerous business. Not only is the cutting and removal of the steel structure extremely hazardous work, but almost all of the vessels now slated for breaking contain hazardous substances such as asbestos, paints containing lead, other heavy metals like cadmium and arsenic, biocides, as well as electrical and other materials containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

In the past these ships were scrapped in dry-dock facilities in shipyards across the industrialised world. Today, due to the high cost of reducing risk from accidents and toxic contamination in most industrialised countries, the industry has migrated abroad. Most of the world's ships are exported to poor Asian countries where labour is cheap and those environmental and occupational rules which do exist are largely ignored.


Almost all ocean-going ships, while owned or operated by companies in developed countries, are being scrapped in the Asian countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Philippines and China. Greenpeace and the Basel Action Network (BAN) have both sent teams to investigate the world's largest ship scrapping site at Alang in Gujarat, India.

There, as in other Asian shipbreaking locations, ships are simply driven onto the beach during full moon high tides. Then, without dry-docks or heavy lifting equipment, the massive vessels are cut up by a cheap labour force of thousands of impoverished workers using nothing more than hand held cutting torches, hammers, saws and chisels.

Greenpeace also send an investigative team to the shipbreaking yards of Panyu, Guangdong, China. Samples taken by Greenpeace from those sites proved that asbestos was lying around.


Half of the world's ocean going fleet ends up in Alang - about one vessel arrives here each day. Most of the rest go to similar shipbreaking sites in Pakistan, Bangladesh, China and the Philippines. Around 700 ships are scrapped each year. Depending on their size, and the current price of steel, the ships are sold for up to several millions of dollars each.

The 40,000 workers in Alang, mostly migrants from the poorest segments of Indian society, earn around New Zealand $3 worth of rupees per day.


Protected only by their scarves and light shoes, the workers' conditions in Alang are very poor. Only a few wear hard hats, rubber boots and gloves. Not only is the job one of the most hazardous in the world, but life in the filthy shanty city is plagued by frequent and often fatal disease as well as the continual risk of serious accidents and injuries. Explosions from cutting torches in contact with residual fuels and lubricants are common, as are accidents from falling steel beams and plates.

Greenpeace and BAN teams visiting in 1998 witnessed extremely harmful carcinogenic blue asbestos being stripped and collected by workers with bare hands and without protective breathing apparatus of any kind. This carcinogenic asbestos is collected by hand and sold at the local market. Men were also torch-cutting ship steel covered with centimetre-thick paints containing lead, cadmium, arsenic and tributyltin (TBT). These workers had no protection from the toxic fumes.

While asbestos, lead, cadmium, arsenic and dioxins contaminate the ground, living area and agricultural areas adjacent to the scrapping beach, a considerable portion of the toxic substances end up in the sea, in the sensitive intertidal zone.

Nobody has kept records of the toxic exposures and deaths in Alang. Pulitzer Prize winning journalists from The Baltimore Sun say there is about one funeral per day in Alang. Official figures indicate that one particular incident, a fire onboard a vessel that was being scrapped in April 1997, claimed 16 lives.


The Encounter Bay was a container ship owned by P&O Nedlloyd, an Anglo-Dutch shipping company. P&O Nedlloyd is among the three largest container-shipping companies in the world, operating in six continents, seven seas and 140 countries. The company operates 112 owned and chartered vessels, and 540,000 containers. In the past year, P&O Nedlloyd sold ten vessels for scrapping in Asia.

Greenpeace and BAN have been tracking the Encounter Bay since November, and have demonstrated at P&O Nedlloyd’s headquarters in Rotterdam, and protested on the ship in Barcelona, Sydney, Auckland and Singapore, before it made its final journey to China.

Despite these warnings, P&O Nedlloyd decided to sell this ship, containing asbestos and other hazardous waste, to shipbreakers in Panyu, Guangdong, China, for 1.5 million US dollars.


Currently, shipowners and brokers operating in rich industrialised countries are shamelessly profiting from the poisoning and polluting of Asia and Asian people rather than taking responsibility for their environmental problems at home. The Basel Action Network (BAN) and Greenpeace aim to put an end to this practice and halt all exports of waste ships laden with toxic substances from member countries of the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) -- the 29 most wealthy and industrialised countries of the world, to non-OECD countries.

Such activity is already illegal. The export of hazardous wastes from OECD to non-OECD countries was made illegal in 1995 by agreement between over 100 countries who are Parties to the Basel Convention on the Control of the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal.

Under the Basel Convention, waste ships, unless cleaned of hazardous substances are described as "contaminated metal scrap" and must be considered as a hazardous waste subject to the ban. BAN and Greenpeace do not oppose the export of clean metal scrap, but are against the export of hazardous wastes in any form, from rich to poorer communities.

Greenpeace believes other relevant organisations such as the UN's International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) must address the issue of toxic ship scrapping and move to ensure the use of hazardous substances onboard vessels is minimised. For example, shipbuilders must be prevented from using asbestos, PCBs, leaded paints and biocides. However, the generation of ships already existing will remain contaminated for the next 30 years and must either be cleaned prior to export, or scrapped at in OECD shipyards under the strictest conditions for safe removal of all hazardous substances.

Greenpeace and the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) have asked the Marine Environment Protection Committee of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) in a joint submission to put shipbreaking on the agenda for the next MEPC meeting on June 28, 1999.


The current practice of exporting ships for breaking from OECD countries to non-OECD countries is not only immoral; it is illegal under international regulation. Besides, exports from non-OECD-countries to other non-OECD countries are also illegal, because the shipbreaking practices in Asia cannot be considered "environmentally sound management, as required by the Basel Convention.

Under the Basel Convention's newly clarified hazardous waste definitions, vessels laden with Basel hazardous wastes (e.g. heavy metals, PCBs, asbestos) bound for scrapping are "contaminated scrap", and are therefore considered a hazardous waste. The UN Basel Convention has banned exports of hazardous wastes, including contaminated metal scrap, from OECD to non-OECD countries. This ban has been in force since January 1st, 1998, for all 15 EU member states. And in other OECD countries yet to ratify it, there is a political obligation to comply with the ban as it was agreed to by consensus without reservation.

Even in the United States, which is the only OECD country currently not a party to the Basel Convention, special OECD rules apply requiring the U.S. to forbid export of waste ships if there is any reason to believe the wastes would not be dealt with in an environmentally sound manner. Unfortunately, none of these legal obligations are currently being enforced.

The Danish and Dutch government already acknowledge that ships-for-scrap are hazardous waste and are covered by the Basel Convention. The Technical Working Group of the Basel Convention will discuss the subject on April 12-16, 1999.


The import of ships containing hazardous substances is a clear violation under Indian law. In May 1997 the Supreme Court of India ruled that the import of hazardous wastes as defined by the Basel Convention into India was prohibited. Further, the Central Pollution Control Board in its "Environmental Guidelines for Shipbreaking Industries" has declared that "old vessels containing or contaminated with any of the above substances [lead, cadmium, PCB, asbestos] are accordingly [as per the Basel Convention] classified as hazardous materials. The customs authority and/or the concerned State Maritime Board should ensure this and issue a certificate to the effect that the vessel is free from the prohibited materials." Unfortunately, these rulings are also ignored.


Greenpeace and the Basel Action Network demand:

1. That all governments take action to enforce the Basel Convention as it applies to the international trade in hazardous ships.

2. That all shipping companies take responsibility to ensure that their ships are stripped of all hazardous substances before export to developing countries, or otherwise have them scrapped in OECD countries.

3. That all governments and relevant international bodies develop strategies to avoid using toxic substances in the shipping industry.

4. That the Indian Government enforce its own laws and protect its environment against the effects of imported toxic wastes, and its workforce against occupational hazards from accidents, disease and toxic substances.

5. That P&O Nedlloyd ensure that its ships are not scrapped in any non-OECD country as long as hazardous substances remain on board, and that full environmental audits of all ships readied for scrapping is undertaken prior to decommissioning.


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