Ship-sized loophole closed

Victory - Toxic ship export controlled

Feature story - 1 November, 2004
In a major victory for the environment and workers in developing nations the dumping of old ships, often containing tonnes of toxic trash, has now been controlled under international law. This should mean an end to toxic horrors such as workers sorting asbestos with their bare hands on open beaches in Asia.

With international agreement that ships can be considered toxic waste, better controls on shipbreaking should result.

At the end of their sailing life, ships are sold for their valuable steel. Because labour is cheap and local environmental regulation lax, the breaking of these old ships takes place on the beaches of countries like Turkey, India, Bangladesh, and China. However, old ships contain hazardous substances such as asbestos, lead paint, PCBs and explosive gases. During scrapping these poisons are released into the environment and workers bodies.

For over six years we have been campaigning to stop the shipping industry being able to sell old ships for recycling without first cleaning the ships of hazardous materials. The current situation means the shipping industry can make a profit of around US$2 million per ship at the expense of the environment and workers health. With around 600 ships per year currently being scrapped, and with the numbers increasing, this adds up to a very profitable business. The export of hazardous waste from rich to poor countries is banned but because these wastes are part of ships, unscrupulous shipping companies were exploiting this as a loophole in international law.

Clean ships for scrap

When we started the campaign calling for the ships to be decontaminated before scrapping we were ridiculed by parts of the shipping industry and ignored by others that thought they could continue to operate outside the principle of international law.

During the campaign we visited the ship breaking beaches in Asia to uncover the appalling working conditions and heavily contaminated environments. We took action against companies knowingly dumping their toxic ships for quick profit. We created a website to expose the bad practices of the shipping industry and pressure it to change. We put 50 ships due to be scrapped under the spotlight to pressure their owners to clean them before sending for scrapping. We recruited people involved in shipping through the site to help us spot the ships on the list.

To complement the actions on the ground and the pressure through the web our campaigners attended numerous unglamorous but essential international meetings. This is where governments meet to set rules and regulations governing waste trade and law of the oceans. We lobbied hard for governments to close the loopholes that the shipping industry were literally sailing hundreds of ships a year through. But of course the shipping industry was also at all these meetings as well, arguing for the profitable but destructive status quo to remain.

After countless hours of paperwork and lobbying all over the world, this work reached fruition at a meeting of the Basel Convention where governments discuss laws that control the trade in wastes. Despite opposition from the shipping industry supported by familiar bad guy governments like US and Japan, governments decided that the export of ships for scrap will be controlled.

Paper Tiger?

At least on paper this means that shipbreaking will have to be undertaken in an environmentally responsible manner and hazardous wastes should be removed before export. The ruling is also timely as new European Union regulations to outlaw single-hulled oil tankers mean thousands of these tankers are destined for scrapping in the next few years.

Of course we'll be remaining vigilant that this law is implemented by the shipping industry and makes a real difference in environmental and working conditions in the shipbreaking yards of Asia. Also we will be watching closely governments like the US, which true to current form haven't ratified international laws like the Basel Convention. Maybe this has something to do with the fact it's looking to get rid of several hundred rusting naval vessels?

There is still work to do tighten the controls on the dumping of toxic ships and to fully ensure this definitely becomes a problem of the past but this is a landmark victory on the road to that goal.

More info

Visit the ship breaking site for background info, pictures and video.

Play the ship breaking "Tricks of the Trade" game.

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