Recycling Ships

April 12, 2008
Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta

Ships are living creatures. Ask any sailor and he will agree and he will further say that ships are feminine. That combination of steel, paint, oil, blood, sweat, tears, sand, sea, wind and waves can be nothing but feminine. But unlike ladies, when ships reach the end of their lives, they are treated rather brutally. They are driven up dirty, oily beaches, and then are ripped apart unceremoniously till the only sign that a living breathing ship ever existed would be some oil stained patches of sand and a heap of unidentifiable steel pieces. The process of recycling a ship in the countries such as India, Bangladesh, China etc. has been highlighted in the western media. For us poor innocents who saw those videos and photographs that entire process looks horrifyingly like the personification of Dante’s hell. So I went poking around.

First of all, do you think I am exaggerating? I am not. Here, take a look at some of these links on this ship breaking industry.

  1. Ship breaking in Chittagong, Bangladesh.
  2. The science behind the complaints
  3. Two photo essays  here and here.
  4. A video essay here.

See what I mean by Dante’s hell? Naked feet treading over hot oily sand, breathing in noxious fumes, no safety equipment, clearly devastated ships, fires and sparks around the place, dark eyes and mud, earnings in the bottom layers and garbage pickers. It is indeed a hell on earth. But, according to some estimates, there are more than a million people across the world directly engaged in ship breaking. Almost 200,000 in Bangladesh itself.

And for very poor people in poor countries such as India, China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, etc., the fact that they have employment is important. It will make the difference between starvation and existing. But this thought seems to have passed people by. When people get shocked at the sight, think about why ships are not being broken up in the USA, UK, Japan, Greece or the shores of Italy? Well, we in the west have put in so many rules, regulations, laws, notifications and ordinances that recycling equipment is simply not cost effective to break up ships here especially when you have lower cost locations available. You have to wear special shoes, wear a gas mask, worry about decontamination of the ground and so on and so forth. And if you lose your job, you will always have a welfare cheque or you can move to another job.

But there are no such human health and safety or environmental requirements in Alang in Gujarat in India or in Chittagong in Bangladesh. And still people are glad to have those jobs. If you put in those requirements for gas masks and decontamination in Chittagong, then you know what will happen? The ships will go to Sierra Leone to be broken up. The 200,000 people in Bangladesh will starve because as you know, jobs or welfare cheques are not really that readily available there. So while you blanch at the nightmarish conditions, do look at the smiles on the faces as well, they are doing honest jobs which the west has made it uneconomic to do in their own lands. But here is the Greenpeace site, quite an interesting site to read. The judgement call to judge employment versus environment protection is very difficult to read and make. Not an easy one at all.

There is an international convention which bars the transfer of hazardous waste between countries. The full name is, Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. Quite a mouthful, eh? It was setup in 1992 and almost 170 countries have signed up to this declaration but it does not seem to be stopping the trade very much. An example of a successful usage of this convention to stop a dirty ship from landing on the shores of Pakistan or India was the case of the scrapping of the French aircraft carrier Clemenceau in 2006.

After a huge global protest campaign by Greenpeace who protested against the French violating the Basel Convention, the French decided not to send the ship to India to be broken up and the poor ship is currently tied up at the Naval port of Brest, gently rusting away. Quite a big victory, eh? It would have been if at exactly the same time, several other ships loaded with asbestos would not have been in the process of being broken up in Alang, India. And if no more French ships loaded with asbestos had landed in India. Or if Greenpeace had continued to campaign to make sure no more asbestos laden ships landed in Alang. But life goes on. An indication of the importance of this subject to Greenpeace can be seen at their main site for ship breaking. Notice the last date of update? It is early 2006. I suppose the camera’s and reporters have gone away but the labourers who are breaking the ships are still there.

The other main reason for scrapping in these countries is that they provide good quality steel at rock bottom prices. Bangladesh is notoriously lacking in raw commodity materials and by some estimates, this ship breaking industry provides up to 90% of the iron and steel usage in the country. Similarly, other countries utilise scrap steel in their domestic iron and steel industry. Have you sent the prices of steel recently? They have gone up through the roof. The Global Carbon Steel Composite Index has gone from 138.3 in February 2006 to 217 in March 2008. So for the poor countries that have to purchase steel, it makes more sense for them to get it in this way.

The European Union and the International Maritime Organisation seem to be working up the courage to implement a convention on doing pre-cleaning of the hazardous materials on the ships before they end up on the breakers beach and ship breaking in general. These hazardous materials are really bad, such as asbestos, dioxins, oil, chemicals, you name it. Now this is a very tricky area. And will be very difficult to implement. Who pays for the clean-up? Does the last owner of the ship pay for it? Does the owner of the last cargo on that ship pay for it? Who will enforce the ruling? Do you enforce the ruling where the ship has been tied up at the last port of call? Or where the ship has been registered? (Can you imagine a country like Liberia or Sierra Leone taking action?).

Or do you make sure that every cargo owner pays some element of the cargo fees aside for eventual cleanup? And if the fees are not paid, then where is the money to clean up going to come from? General taxation? Which general taxation? Do you wish this to be paid out of EU funds? Or national funds? If so, why would say Luxembourg have to pay for clean up of ships while it is totally landlocked? Who will enforce it? Do you change the penalties by size of the ship or by the cargo capacity of the ship? There are quite a lot of questions to be answered, but seems like some form of a convention will emerge and very slowly, with loads of holes and exclusions, take shape. Then countries will sign up slowly, the industry will shift its patterns, and over many decades or so, get to a stage where a global standard has been agreed, implemented, operationalised and policed. Long way to go yet. If you think I am joking, head over to the International Labour Organisation website and see the conventions they have written, the number of parties who have signed up and then look around to see if that has made much of a difference, these things take time.

I love ships, I adore their shapes and I love their behaviour. They are definitely human to me and could be the inner sailor in me speaking. They are definitely contrary, need to be handled very gently and carefully and very expensive to run. So much so that Admiral Chester Nimitz said, "A ship is always referred to as 'she' because it costs so much to keep one in paint and powder." Ships talk and murmur. Seriously, they do. Listen to them and you can listen to them talking, murmuring, creaking, screeching and whining. Not on those cruise ships, they are not ships, they are gaudy ornaments, sound proofed and carpeted all over. But a warship, a tanker, a container ship, a cargo vessel, serious vessels, who treat the sea warily and with respect, they talk to you.

Docks talk about ships taking birth in yards, joy you feel when the ship hits the water in the rush. It is very much like a human birth. Signing of the contract, the bringing together of men, materials and money in a womb like yard and the final birth as the ship rushes down and splashes into the water to be finally born. When a ship sinks and dies, it cries. Submariners who have torpedoed ships frequently talk about the sadness they feel when the ship dies. They talk about the haunting ship’s death groans when they hear the crumpling of the ships hull as it sinks down to the ocean depths.

But perhaps that is indeed the right grave for ships, the ocean depths. To be driven up a beach and then stripped naked, all the hull and steel cut away with flame torches, all the furniture and fittings unscrewed and unbolted, the oil drained away, till nothing is left but a patch of oil stained sand is somehow very distressing. But perhaps the fact that in the ship’s death, she has given back something to the humans who built and rode her while she was alive, makes the manner of her death worthwhile.

All this to be taken with a grain of salt!

Dr. Bhaskar Dasgupta works in the city of London in various capacities in the financial sector. He has worked and travelled widely around the world. The articles in here relate to his current studies and are strictly his opinion and do not reflect the position of his past or current employer(s). If you do want to blame somebody, then blame my sister and editor, she is responsible for everything, the ideas, the writing, the quotes, the drive, the israeli-palestinian crisis, global warming, the ozone layer depletion and the argentinian debt crisis.
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April 12, 2008
03:54 PM

Apologies for couple of typo's in the post, folks. Was too quick to submit.

April 12, 2008
07:19 PM

the horrors of shipbreaking have been a source of fascination and horror for me for years now. The pictures I have seen are amazing and disgusting.. it is frightening that people who have little previous experience and no safety gear are left with basic tools to dismantle enormous ships of all kinds, sometimes with hazardous cargo residue still present, on beaches. it defiles the environment and many of the shipbreakers are disfigured and killed at work every month.

take a look at the greenpeace website for more information.

April 13, 2008
05:06 AM

SS, I am afraid what you see in Alang is frankly what is the situation in 90% of all manufacturing units in India. It is just bigger in scope, so the difference is more eye catching. But otherwise, this is about par for the course...

April 13, 2008
02:37 PM

Please visit mediavigil.blogspot.com for the latest on ship-breaking. workers do not have any nationality...if they had one they would not be exposed to toxic chemicals that cause preventable but incurable diseases.

April 13, 2008
04:46 PM

good work there on the blog, toxics, best of luck with your attempts to address this issue, but I am afraid until and unless we deal with this also on an international level, we will simply move the problem to say Bangladesh or another country. Just like it moved from Europe and USA to our countries...

April 14, 2008
03:01 AM

Environmental and human rights organisations continue to work to ensure safe and environmentally sound shipbreaking world-wide. The NGO Platform on Shipbreaking unites a large number of organisations, including Greenpeace and NGOs based in the largest shipbreaking countries, India and Bangladesh. The export of obsolete ocean going vessels laden with asbestos, PCBs, toxic paints, biocides, fuel residues and other hazardous substances, from wealthy shipping companies and nations to some of the poorest communities in the world for extremely hazardous scrapping is the type of scandalous exploitation that the Platform seeks to reveal and aims to prevent.

To know more about our campaigns see the following websites of some of the member organisations:


Also, note the upcoming website of the NGO Platform:


Ayan Roy
April 14, 2008
03:42 AM

Very, very well written, Dr. Bhaskar.

I liked the idea of ships having a life of their own. After all the effort and emotion that goes into building a ship, one tends to think and feel like it's your baby.

It also reminded me of an old Sci-fi T.V. series called Babylon 5, where an anicent, highly advanced alien race called Vorlons travel in completely organic space-ships which are actually living creatures, and are symbiotically and emotionally attached to the pilots, like companions.

The other points of your aritcle brought a sense of sadness and exasperation in me.

Developed nations using third-world countries as toxic garbage dumps is not a new phenomenon.

It's difficult to control ship-breaking, as there is a strong supply-demand chain. The supply being the innumerable ships going out of service, and the demand being the abundant cheap labour available in these third-world countries. People who are desparate for a daily meal care two hoots for safety and environmental conditions. It is very difficult to break this chain, just like the menace of corruption in many poor countries.

Cheap steel is also a massive economic factor as you pointed out, given the current price rise.

Unfortunately nobody wants to pay to clean up the cutting process. And the local governments are least interested in applying strict safety and environmental norms for ship-cutting.

But rubber boots, gloves, gas-masks, safety goggles, acid-proof coats are not that expensive, are they?

What can be done??

Love and peace to all,

April 14, 2008
09:23 AM

Thank you, Ayan, for your kind words.

Well, considering the fact that rubber boots, gloves, gas masks etc. are not just it, the overall costs of health and safety rise horrendously. You need to hire people to do the training, you need to purchase business insurance, you need to make sure that accidents do not happen, that too explicitly, delays happen, automation is required, far too many assessments need to be made, etc. etc.

Take for example a simplistic case. A ship comes in and waits for 4 hours till the tide is highest, then it spins up to flank speed and then beaches itself. If one had to apply every possible health and safety requirement, then it would be at least 2-4 weeks before the work can start. Otherwise, in the absense of any laws, those chappal clad chaps get to work immediately, thereby saving money...

if you start giving them equipment, then the cost increases, and then because the bangladeshi buyer does not have to worry about rubber boots and helmets, he can buy the ship for cheaper than you as an Indian. So what do you do? not buy the ship and not give employment? or buy the ship, give employment but not give the steel shoes?

see what i mean by tough choices?

Uncle B
March 5, 2009
11:43 AM

Capitalism is a monstrous Mistress!

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