Surprisingly, modern ships only have a life span of roughly 25-30 years before corrosion and metal fatigue overtake the vessels rendering them uneconomical to run. So, what happens to these unwanted, behemoth ships? While some ships may be sunk to create artificial reefs , most of them undergo a process called ship breaking or ship demolition.
A type of ship disposal, ship demolition is a laborious process involving the breaking up of ships as either a source of parts (sold for reuse), or the extraction of raw materials. Ideally a sustainable practice, ship breaking allows the material from the ship, such as steel, to be recycled, melted down, and used in the construction of new shipping vessels. Equipment on board the ship, such as wooden furniture, glass and other various parts, can also be reused. The disassembling of a ship can take anywhere from two weeks to a year.
Human and Environmental Concerns
Ship demolition is considered one of the most dangerous professions in the world (read National Geographic’s exposé for an inside look), but that shouldn’t be a surprise. Cargo ships were built to be unbreakable, withstanding the worst elements while carrying the most toxic chemicals. Saying it’s “hard” to break apart one of these safe-like vessels is an understatement – and doing so comes with its own set of hazards and risks.
In addition, many ships contain dangerous, toxic chemicals such as asbestos, lead and mercury – stuff that hurts not only the workers garbed in sub-standard protective gear, but the environment as well. Many of the dismantling techniques run the risk of causing irrevocable environmental damage and international regulations have been put in place to prevent just that.
Many safety regulations have been implemented related to ship demolition. For example, The Hong Kong International Convention for the Safety and Environmentally Sound Recycling of the Ships, 2009, was adopted to ensure that breaking procedures do not pose any unnecessary risk to human health, safety and environment. The Basel Convention has also partnered with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to improve rules and regulations preventing the environment from irreparable harm.
Around 85% of the world’s shipbreaking activities take place in Bangladesh, China, Pakistan and India – much in part to the availability of cheap labor and reduced regulatory enforcement in the poor regions of these countries. While strong labor and environmental laws have been established, they are not always followed and money tends to talk louder. Unfortunately, many of the ship breaking yards in developing countries such as these, neglect to follow the established laws, causing great danger to both the workers and the environment.