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December 5, 2018updated 29 Nov 2018 5:18pm

Shipbreaking Platform: fighting to stop boats being broken up on beaches

Shipbreaking is still a major problem, both due to unsafe working conditions and damage caused to coastal ecosystems in countries such as Bangladesh. In this Q+A, NGO Shipbreaking Platform speaks about the impact of shipbreaking, the progress that has been made to change the landscape of this activity in recent years, and the steps it is taking in the future.

By Elliot Gardner

Most ships have a lifespan of around 25 to 30 years, after which the vessel becomes difficult to run without the owner operating at a loss. But despite hundreds of ships reaching the end of their operational lives every year, only 30% are dismantled and scrapped in a clean and safe way.

The other 70% of ships end up on one of three beaches in South Asia – Alang in India, Chittagong in Bangladesh, or Gadani in Pakistan – where illegal and dangerous shipbreaking is carried out. Hundreds of unskilled migrant workers scrap the ships using crude cutting tools, leading to the release of toxic substances, and putting the lives of hundreds of workers at risk.

But how do you solve a problem so widespread? The NGO Shipbreaking Platform believes the whole operation should instead be carried out on industrial platforms – such as dry docks – in regulated environments according to high standards. Shipbreaking Platform communication and policy officer Nicola Mulinaris speaks of the work the NGO is doing in the area.

Elliot Gardner: What is Shipbreaking Platform doing to counter illegal shipbreaking?

Nicola Mulinaris: We were founded in 2006 and we’re a coalition of 19 organisations based worldwide. We have member organisations all over the world, including in South Asia where most of the ships are scrapped.

We work on different aspects of the issue, for example at European level making sure that legislation is enforced or is properly implemented in member states, or that European institutions can come up with rigid new regulations or directives related to the issue of shipbreaking. In two months the European ship recycling regulation will be applicable and we believe this is a good way forward.

We also work at corporate level with ship owners and other stakeholders, such as financial institutions and cargo owners that could put pressure on ship owners to do the right thing.

And we work at international level with the International Maritime Organization (IMO), UN bodies and with national governments. We try via our significant research work to spot ships that are going for breaking and stop illegal exports to South Asia, alerting national authorities.

We have prompted several investigations that are still ongoing, and several legal trials which have set an important precedent. We work on the legal side on some compensation cases too. We try and assist workers with legal aid via our member organisations and monitor the situation on the ground in terms of facts and figures. We have human rights organisations as members, but also environmental organisations, so we cover both sides of the debate. Though, it is more and more difficult to work on the environmental side of things because of difficulty accessing the yards.

EG: How should ship recycling be undertaken if not through shipbreaking?

NM: We as an organisation believe that the future of ship recycling is not on a beach. The beach can be improved as much as you want, but will always remain a beach. We believe that shipbreaking is a potentially dangerous and dirty activity that should take place on an industrial platform.

We are not against ship recycling in South Asia. Countries like Bangladesh, India and Pakistan are able to recycle ships in the proper way. For example, there is a yard that was built by Japanese private investment that was located around 100km away from the beach of Alang in India, and there were a series of dry docks built in 1999 to strip ships in the proper way. The problem was that those docks were never used by ship owners. The Indian Government never shut down the beaching yard, so those state-of-the-art facilities were not able to compete.

We’re not talking about rocket science – the dry dock was created by the Chinese a thousand years ago. It’s just a matter of convincing or forcing ship owners to do the right thing.

There will always be ship owners that go for top dollar, and they don’t necessarily take into account the human and environmental costs of such activities.

EG: Which party could have the biggest impact in changing the current situation?

NM: Well, it’s a combination. Ultimately the entity that is responsible for the proper recycling of the asset is the company that profited from using that asset when it was in operation, namely the beneficial owner. There’s a difference between the commercial operator, beneficial owner and registered owner. We believe that the beneficial owner is ultimately responsible and should take charge of end-of-life fleet management.

But of course the fact that there are companies that – let’s face it – are fairly shady entities. Cash buyers that circumvent legislation on purpose and who re-name or re-register ships in tax havens, as well as other unethical practices – a certain amount of blame should be put on them, and of course on ship owners who decide to sell their ships to these entities.

Obviously, the owners of the yards also have some responsibility. They’re the ones who have been carrying out these substandard practices for the last 30 years. But if the ship owners wanted to do the right thing, they could easily do that. It’s just a matter of picking up the phone and talking to a clean and safe yard. The list of yards is even available now on Google. Cash buyers can easily be taken out of the picture if the owners deal directly with these state-of-the-art facilities.

EG: How do you encourage these companies to use an ethical and environmental recycling method if it means they will get less profit?

NM: We’ve had dialogue with many ship owners over the last twelve years. And there are companies that now have a clear ‘off the beach’ policy. Organisations such as Boskalis in the Netherlands, or Hapag-Lloyd in Germany; there are definitely ship companies out there that really care and believe that the future of ship recycling is in dry docks.

Of course, other ship companies are difficult to convince because they only care about top dollar, or because they believe – and Maersk’s position comes to mind – that it is good to try to spark a change on the beaches of South Asia. For us, that is a lack of long-term vision. You can improve a beach as much as you like, but it will still remain a beach. Of course, every improvement that can save one more human life is welcome. We just believe it is a very short-term approach.

But we work a lot with financial institutions, namely banks and pension funds. Some entities, such as the Norwegian oil pension fund, have decided to exclude some companies from their portfolios for poor beaching practices, which is an extremely good move and a step forward.

We are also advocating for the introduction of a financial incentive at European level in the form of a ship recycling licence.

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