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Scrapping of Ocean-Going Ships:
A Global Environmental, Health and Human Rights Problem

June 1999 - Speech by Thilo Bode, Executive Director of Greenpeace International for the 1st GLOBAL SHIP SCRAPPING SUMMIT

Greenpeace is an international non-governmental organisation dedicated to preserve the treasures and resources of the globe for future generations and fights for a sustainable, toxics free future.

As such we have over a decade of history of fighting the export of toxic and hazardous wastes from the rich on earth to the poor, from OECD countries to the rest of the world.

Once the ban on hazardous waste trade from OECD to non-OCED had been established under the Basel Convention the world became aware of a gaping loophole: the scrapping of old vessels in Asia. This is one of the issues we are focusing on at present.

Greenpeace and a partner coalition of NGOs, including the Basel Action Network (BAN) have been bearing witness and documenting shipbreaking activity in Asia since 1997. We have produced several publications, videos, and papers including reports on our various protest actions around the globe that are available to you on our respective websites.

On the Indian subcontinent and in the Philippines workers‘ unions, human rights activists and environmentalists have developed their own activities in order to improve the situation.

Of the world's commercial shipping fleet of almost 50,000 ocean-going ships (container ships, freighters, ferries, refrigerated ships, tankers and so on) every year, some 700 are scrapped. The average age of these ships to be scrapped is 29 years. The number of ships scrapped grows each year. The market leaders in shipbreaking are India (with 70%) followed by Bangladesh, Pakistan, China and the Philippines. Well over 100,000 workers are estimated to be employed at shipbreaking yards world-wide.

Depending on their size and function, the scrapped ships have an unladen weight (l.d.t.) of between 5,000 and 40,000 tonnes (average13,000 t). 95% of this is steel, coated with between 10 and 100 tonnes of paint containing lead, cadmium, organotins, arsenic, zinc and

chromium. Shipbuilding materials also contain other hazardous wastes: sealants containing PCBs and, on each ship, up to 7.5 tonnes of various types of asbestos in pure and processed form. In addition, there are several thousand litres of oil (engine fuel, bilge oil, hydraulic and lubrication oils and greases); tankers additionally hold up to 1,000 cubic metres of residual oil. A scrapped ship thus contains a wide range of toxic substances. In Europe, such materials are subject to special monitoring and their disposal is highly regulated and expensive. Most of them are already defined as hazardous under the Basel Convention.

Shipbreaking practice

Shipbreaking reclaims high-value steel and eliminates surplus carrying capacity. The commercial procedure is extremely simple: the owner sells the ship by weight to the shipbreaking company and is thereby relieved of all further responsibility.

In the last 20 years, partly as a result of globalization, the shipbreaking industry has degenerated from mechanized dock work to primitive technology, simple hand labour. In the 1970s, ocean-going vessels were scrapped at docks in the United Kingdom, Taiwan, Spain, Mexico and Brazil with prescribed technical procedures and mechanical aids. Since the early 1980s, shipbreaking activities have migrated to low-pay Asian countries that are poor in raw materials. Old ships are cut up by hand on open beaches and under inhuman working conditions. The product is primarily ship steel, which is turned into mild steel by cold rolling. In industrialized countries, rolled steel is banned from structural use for quality reasons.

We have observed that the migration of shipbreaking follows the same global tracks as the movement of hazardous wastes around the globe. It follows the pathway of least resistance.

The poorer the countries are, the more waste they get. This fatal choice between poison or poverty must be replaced by a clean and just future.

Only this month both the WHO and the ILO have complained that globalisation - in this sense - can be hazardous to the health" of millions of people" (Financial Times, June 9,99).

Greenpeace and BAN have made a number of fact finding missions to shipbreaking yards in India, China and Philippines. Our findings indicate a common trend of hazardous waste dumping and poor worker safety. The shipping industry operates its vessels in a global theater looking into the new century and scrap its vessels at a technological level of the 1800's. This cannot continue, this must change, and in fact this will change as the UN bodies of IMO, ILO and UNEP take up this issue.

The main question now is not if, but how, and how fast.

We urge shipowners and all players of the shipping industries not to wait for UN decisions but to start fixing the immediate and more blatant problems.

Ships from the 1970s containing maximum levels of hazardous substances are now being cut up in the inter-tidal zones of Asian beaches without any safety or environmental precautions. All ship-owners from rich EU countries have a hand in this business, and exporting ocean-going ships that have ended their useful lives, to Asia.

In doing so, they are breaking the Basel Convention ban on exporting "contaminated metal scrap". This ban has been legally binding in EU countries since 1998. As the shipbreaking practices often violate national law in the importing states, they are illegal on several counts.

Thus, shipowners, authorities, breakers and the governments of importing states ignore the golden rules of environmental practice which are: reduce , reuse, recycle as much as possible and store or detoxify remaining harmful and hazardous materials in an environmentally responsible, safe manner.

The victims

The tens of thousands of young men who endure hard physical labour in permanent danger for 1 or 2 dollars a day are migrant workers. Not registered by name, they are difficult to identify. They work in shifts, in highly cramped conditions and mostly without safety

equipment. An average of 360 deaths a year are reported from Alang alone, the world's biggest ships' graveyard in Gujarat, India. The causes of death are explosions, fire, suffocation and falling steel beams and plates. The corpses are incinerated at the place of work, far from their families, and remain forever anonymous.

The workers know nothing of the insidious risks to their health through breathing toxic fumes and asbestos dust both on the job and in their sleeping quarters close by. Commonly occurring illnesses are considered a matter of fate. Unprotected handling of the identified substances has long been known to cause a wide range of complaints:

  • Asbestos dust causes formation of scar-like tissue resulting in permanent breathing difficulties (asbestosis). In the longer term, cancer of the lungs and of the thin membrane surrounding these organs (mesothelioma) may result.
  • Lead accumulates in the blood and bones after inhalation or ingestion. It can cause anaemia and is toxic to the nervous system and to the kidneys.
  • Arsenic exposure can result in lung, skin, intestinal, kidney, liver and bladder cancers. It can also cause damage to blood vessels. Inflammation of nervous tissue caused by arsenic can result in loss of feeling or paralysis. Disfiguring growths may also appear on the skin of exposed humans.
  • Chromium contained in some chrome based chemicals (chromates) can cause eczema and respiratory disease in people exposed to dusts and fumes, including cancer of the lung.
  • Organotins (TBT, TBTO and TBTCL) are nerve toxins that accumulate in the blood, liver, kidneys and brain. TBTO is acutely poisonous, and is also genotoxic. In shellfish, organotins affect the endocrine (hormone-producing) system causing damage to reproduction.
  • PAHs (polycyclic-aromatic hydrocarbon compounds) can cause various cancers including cancer of the lung and of the scrotum. Some PAHs can combine with genetic material (DNA) causing cell damage and mutations. Exposure can also suppress the immune system.
  • Dioxins are potent carcinogens and suppressors of the immune system and are accumulated in body fat tissue. In addition they are suspected of prenatal and postnatal effects on the nervous system of children. In animal studies they have been shown to reduce sperm production.

Our campaigners have witnessed and documented the appalling situation in some of these shipyards in India and China. In India we have seen people picking asbestos-containing insulation materials from ships with their bare hands. We have seen dozens of workers torch-cutting ship steel into small pieces, inhaling the toxic fumes of lead paints with no protection at all. We have seen women carrying asbestos wastes on their heads to dump them in the sea.

Greenpeace laboratory analysis of seawater, sediment and soil samples have shown that the region's environment at Alang and Bombay is becoming increasingly contaminated. Residual oil inevitably pollutes the sea. Materials and objects containing asbestos are widely distributed around the country as waste and for reuse.

Some shipowners now admit that conditions in India are "unacceptable" and are now looking to China. But in fact conditions are as unacceptable here as in India: people work without protection handling the same toxic and hazardous substances. The main difference seems to be that for heavy burden in China more cranes and machinery are being used than in India. In China we have found asbestos being stored in the open.

Possible solutions

Responsibility for the catastrophic state of affairs lies with the international shipping industry, which is already largely globalized.

Regulations can be drawn up by the IMO (International Maritime Organisation, London) ILO (International Labour Organisation,Geneva), and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), all under, the United Nations' umbrella and supported by classification bodies and technical universities. The main players – shipowners and their associations - must take immediate action together with shipbreakers and the governments of importing states to protect people's health and the environment.

Some governments already see the need for taking action and supporting change particularly in the OECD : Europe, USA and Australia. We are still beginning the debate on how to best solve the problem but it is already clear for the international community that we cannot leave things as they are. We need a solution-driven approach so while addressing the inventory waste (old ships) we should also be working on eco-friendly designs for new ships.

Greenpeace demands:

The political framework is defined by our request that Basel, the IMO and the ILO address the issue and send one message to the industry.

The working framework is to ensure that we are not calling for the end of shipbreaking activities but the detoxification of this industry.

1. Clean Jobs and Clean Environment: Environment and health-damaging shipbreaking practices must come to an end world-wide. Global minimum standards must be enforced for technology, occupational safety,environmental protection and workers' rights.

2. No Toxic Trade: Illegal exports of poisons must stop. The Basel Convention bans exports of ships containing hazardous substances from OECD countries to the rest of the world. Legal loopholes must be closed. The Basel Convention needs to be implemented in cooperation with the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) under the umbrella of the United Nations.

3. Toxics Free Industry: Ships still in operation must be cleaned of hazardous substances when in dock for refitting, repairs, repainting etc. They must be as 'clean' as possible when scrapped.

4. Clean Production: The next generation of ships should be built with as few toxic materials as possible and be designed for easy dismantling so as to rule out health and environmental risks in scrapping. Dismantling and scrapping plans should be drawn up for new ships, stating those risk zones and hazardous materials which remain.

Finally, let me reinforce again my message: Greenpeace is neither against the shipping industry nor shipbreaking. We support the important jobs created by this industry.

However, this industry has a responsibility to act as citizens of this planet. The global society are acknowledging more and more that everyone has the right for a clean and peaceful future.

We want to bear witness to the process of change that this industry will undergo. We want to help you move forward and ensure to the public that the shipping industry and particularly shipbuilding and shipbreaking can be part of the solution and not add to the environmental problems we are already suffering from.

We are here to help, we are here to learn, we are here to engage you in our struggle for a toxic free future.

Thank you.

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Select images courtesy of Chris Jordan