Ship recycling – acknowledging progress

Worldwide, about 700 ocean-going vessels are taken out of service each year. The exact number varies depending on the business climate in the maritime shipping markets and the price of used steel. Roughly 95% of these old ships are recycled in South Asia, especially in Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. In these countries, thousands of jobs in the shipyards and downstream service sector depend on the ship recycling industry. The used steel recovered from the ships is a valuable raw material. In Bangladesh alone, recycling yards meet an estimated 80% of the country’s total demand for raw steel. Thus, ship recycling is an important economic factor not only for European ship owners, but especially for those countries that meet their steel needs by recycling old ships.

However, it is not only ship steel that finds a new purpose in the recycling process. In fact, almost the entire ship is put to a new use. For example, lamps, anchors and other components are recovered from the ships and re-sold, thereby extending their service life. In the end, there are only a handful of items that need to be disposed of properly.

Efforts to create global standards

To ensure that the safety and environmental standards for the dismantling and subsequent recycling of ships are both high and globally uniform, the member states of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) adopted the so-called Hong Kong Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships in 2009. The convention calls for shipbreaking yards to be comprehensively certified for occupational safety and environmental protection by the independent classification societies. Once in force, shipping companies will be required to draw up inventories of the hazardous materials present on board, and inspections will be conducted as part of the global port state controls to ensure that these requirements are being met. However, the convention has not yet entered into force.

The European Union and its Member States concluded that the Hong Kong Convention provides an effective level of control and enforcement for high environmental and safety standards in ship recycling. Moreover, the Council of the European Union has explicitly encouraged Member States to make it a priority to ratify the convention so that it can bring about a genuine and effective improvement in practice as soon as possible. The signatory states to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal have also endorsed this assessment and have been pressing for years for the prompt ratification of the Hong Kong Convention.

The shipping industry has likewise been proactively promoting the rapid entry into force of the Hong Kong Convention since 2009 and already applies its basic rules on a voluntary basis via its own guidelines – the Guidelines on Transitional Measures for Shipowners Selling Ships for Recycling.


What does the Hong Kong Convention regulate?
  • Shipping companies: Are required to draw up an inventory of hazardous materials that lists all toxic substances, such as asbestos, PCBs, ozone-depleting gases (CFCs) and anti-fouling paints containing TBT, which were still frequently used until some time ago on the exterior hull of ships.
  • Recycling yards: Must be certified by state-recognised classification societies for occupational safety (including fire protection, protective clothing, training and medical care for shipyard workers) and environmental protection (including sealed surfaces on the shipyard site as well as proper separation and disposal of hazardous materials).
When will the Convention enter into force?

Two years after the following criteria have been met:

  • It must be ratified by at least 15 states,
  • which must collectively represent 40% of world merchant shipping by gross tonnage and
  • no less than 3% of the recycling capacity (measured in terms of the average of the last 10 years relative to the 40% of world merchant shipping by gross tonnage).


With 22% of the world’s recycling capacity and 1% of world merchant shipping by gross tonnage (Germany: 7.9%), India is playing a key role in advancing the successful ratification of the convention.

Two thirds of the recycling yards in Alang, India, now look like this. (©Kröger)

Supporting “green recycling” front-runners

A number of countries, such as Japan, are working to quickly boost standards at recycling yards, especially in South Asia. In addition, voluntary initiatives within the shipping industry have had a far-reaching impact, particularly in India. The overwhelming majority of recycling yards – such as the world’s most important shipbreaking site in Alang, India – have noticeably and successfully invested in occupational health and safety as well as environmental protection and have now received a “statement of compliance” from various internationally recognised classification societies certifying that they adhere to the standards of the Hong Kong Convention.

In many work areas of the certified shipyards in Alang, there are now impermeable concrete floors with drainage and spill control equipment to allow parts of vessels to be cut up and cleaned in an eco-friendly way. Any contact that the dismantled ship parts have with the beach is also reduced to a minimum or completed prevented. Rather than being done on the beach, most of the work is now performed on sealed surfaces set back from the beach. The workers wear protective clothing and receive instruction on occupational safety and environmental standards. And they also have regular training on how to handle hazardous materials, which are not only separated and temporarily stored at the shipyards, but also professionally collected and recycled in a dedicated hazardous materials centre set up in the hinterland. What’s more, there are safety officers in the shipyards who monitor work processes.

These are positive signs that the international regulations of the Hong Kong Convention are not only gaining traction in India’s most important ship-recycling location but are also being widely adhered to. Indeed, these initiatives serve as “role models” that will hopefully be emulated by many more shipyards across South Asia.

Special paths for Europe

A few years ago, an EU regulation on ship recycling was adopted in parallel with the intention of effectively bringing the Hong Kong Convention into force for the EU member states at an early stage by transposing it into European law. In fact, in some cases, the EU regulations sets standards even more stringent than those included in the global agreement.

For example, the EU regulations only allow EU-flagged ships to be recycled at shipyards that meet EU standards and are included on a special European list. To date, no shipyard in South Asia has been included on the EU list.

Given the positive developments in Asian shipyards, and especially at the certified ones in Alang, the shipping industry are criticising the European Commission’s initiative in the belief that having a special regional regulation only hurts the chances that the global Hong Kong Convention will eventually enter into force. The main argument is that the EU laws will not be able to improve conditions in the shipbreaking yards in Asia because such laws to not apply there. In reality, this de factor ban on European shipowners having their ships recycled in Asia jeopardises not only the ratification of the Hong Kong Convention in South Asia, but also the progress that many shipyards in these countries have already made in terms of upgrading their environmental-protection and working conditions.

Instead, today’s trend-setting, certified recycling yards need a clear signal from Europe that it will acknowledge and support the advances they have made, or else the step towards transforming all yards in South Asia will not succeed. These latter operations, in particular, need incentives to follow the good example of the already certified shipyards in the region. Bans from Brussels are the wrong way to encourage progress in South Asian recycling yards.

The workers are trained in work safety and environmental standards. Regular training is given in the handling of hazardous substances. (©Kröger)