From the beaches of Santa Barbara you can see them anchored a half-mile offshore: giant, white, floating boxes called cruise ships. They are enormous, but nothing compared to the behemoth tankers and container ships that ply the ocean road between the mainland and the local Channel Islands. Though they appear tiny on the horizon, their astounding size is evidenced by the fact that they’re at least ten miles away. These ships cross oceans and are designed to encounter all the wind and rough water that one would expect on those open waters. They are built to last.
Every few years, by law, shippers must certify their vessels as seaworthy—safe to operate and safe for the crew and any passengers. Time, weather, and salt take their toll on anything afloat, and after about 30 years, a ship has likely seen its day. Too many parts and systems begin to break down for refurbishment to be economical, but a worn-out ship is not something you just drill a hole in the hull of, and let sink to the bottom. Tens of thousands of tons of steel make up the framework of these humongous transporters, steel that is worth a lot of money. Hence, there is reason to recycle them.
Some 800 ships a year are sold to recycling operations, and it’s good to keep them from going to waste. The trouble is, it’s environmentally dirty, difficult work that for the effort, doesn’t produce a great enough cash return in developed countries. Sixty years ago, this work was done in places like the US, the UK, Germany, and Italy. However, with greater internationalization of business, it became far more lucrative to send spent ships to countries like China, India, Pakistan or Bangladesh, where labor was far cheaper, environmental laws much looser, and operations physically closer to eastbound shipping routes. Of these operators, most now find it harder to compete with Bangladesh, because that country features the very lowest wages.
How on Earth do you go about recycling a ship, given the size and their sturdy construction? Wealthier countries have drydocks to work in, but in the very poor countries where these things are now done, there is a simpler solution. On their very last short voyage in the sea, the doomed ships are powered up and run aground on wide, flat beaches at particularly high tides. Areas of low coastal relief in Bangladesh and Pakistan are well-suited to this strategy. The next step in this process known as “shipbreaking,” is to drain all the residual fuel supplies for safety and resale, and then strip the vessel of all its equipment of value: engines, machinery, instruments, wiring, and other parts, for second-hand sale. In order to “clean” the ship of any uncaptured fuel, etc, it is flushed to the decks with seawater, and then pumped out—into the nearshore waters. Anyone for a swim?
The gutted framework of the ship is mostly steel, and has to be cut up. This is done with simple hand tools: acetylene torches and sledgehammers. The huge job is slow-going, and it can take months for a crew to tear apart a single ship. The cutting-up is only one part of the gruesome labor. Following those high tides that facilitate beaching, the ocean recedes. Barefoot men, and some boys, then head out into the wet sand and mud, carrying a huge, long, steel cable, slipping and sliding with the enormous weight. As the ship is cut into huge pieces, the cable is attached to the fallen parts, and a powerful winch on shore drags them to drier ground for further dissection, eventually to be melted down to make rebar and other products. In Bangladesh, recycled ships may provide as much as 60% of all the steel the country uses.
As might be imagined, this is work of huge physical effort, and horrifying danger. It is estimated that many tens of workers die annually by being crushed, burned or killed in explosions (the torches sometimes hit pockets of gas below decks), cut by jagged metal, and a thousand-and-one other hazards. The entire workspace is a toxic nightmare containing asbestos, lead, spilled fuel, and caustic chemicals of many sorts. Often, work is done as the workers soak in this heavily polluted water and mud. Obviously, only the most desperately poor laborers would agree to accept such work, and for their efforts they are paid little. The shipbreaking industry is very secretive, thanks to the unconscionable conditions and rumored high death rate. While reliable statistics are hard to come by, the scars on the men’s bodies and their stories of killed coworkers speak volumes, and there are no statistics on the fate of those who quit the industry because of long-term injuries.
Ships in the US defense forces must be dismantled by American industries because of security concerns. However, commercial ships run by American companies are usually registered under foreign flags for economic reasons, and can legally be sent to foreign shipbreakers. Turkey is the last European country in the trade, and their operations are much better run, but the greatest profit can be made where labor is cheap, and where recycled steel has the highest value. Underdeveloped countries fit this bill, and do the vast majority of the work. As it is with much of the world’s plastic, cardboard, and electronic waste, poor countries with few regulations take in the castoffs of the developed world, poisoning themselves to raise cash any way they can. Still, hopes for a better situation are emerging. After years of worker and environmental abuse, the grim truth about conditions at shipbreaking operations are gaining a wider audience, bringing protests, reform groups, and governmental awareness. Corrective action may depress profits, but lives, health, and the environment may see better protection through new laws and regulations on this once-shrouded enterprise.
It’s not easy to get into the shipbreaking beaches of Bangladesh, but this map, available at Maps.com, will get you close! Click here to start your adventure:
source: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory: NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team (Public domain)