The NGO Shipbreaking Platform, a coalition of human rights, labour rights and environmental organisations working on the shipbreaking issue, has released its third yearly list of European companies that have sent end-of-life ships to the infamous scrap beaches of South Asia. The European Waste Shipment Regulation – which incorporates international law such as the 1989 Basel Convention on the control of transboundary movements of hazardous wastes – prohibits European Union Member States from exporting hazardous wastes, including those present in the structure of ships to developing countries. Still, the vast majority of European shipping companies continue to avoid the costs of proper disposal by selling their ships to South Asian breaking yards known for the lack of enforcement of environmental and labour laws, exposing some of the poorest communities to extremely dangerous working conditions and severe pollution. The top 10 European “global dumpers” in 2011 are:
- Greece(100 ships)
- Norway(24 ships)
- UK(13 ships)
- TheNetherlands(12 ships)
- Germany(11 ships)
- Italy(9 ships)
- Cyprus,Switzerland(5 ships each )
- Bulgaria,Denmark,Romania(4 ships each)
- Latvia,Lithuania,Poland,Spain,Sweden(3 ships each)
- Belgium,Finland,Ireland,Slovenia(1 ship each)
Once more, the listing of European dumpers also highlights the problem of “flags of convenience” (FOC). Unscrupulous ship-owners have long used FOCs to evade tax rules, licence regulations, safety standards and social requirements for the treatment of crew. Backed by shell companies, joint-ventures and hidden owners, FOCs are also considerable constraints to combating illegal toxic waste dumping as they make it extremely difficult to locate and penalise the real owners of vessels. In 2011, the top five flags used by European companies were so-called “flags of convenience” as listed by the International Transport Workers Federation, and accounted for 64% of the total (almost two thirds) of flags. These are:
- Panama(55 times)
- Liberia(33 times)
- Bahamas, St Kitts-Nevis (12 times each)
- Comoros(11 times)
- Marshall Islands, St Vincent & Grenadines (7 times each)
Pollution and deaths caused by obsolete European ships
Each year, approximately 800 ocean ships reach the end of their service life and are broken down to recover steel. Yet only a fraction is handled in a safe, sustainable manner. About 80% of all end-of-life ships are simply run ashore on tidal beaches in developing countries such as Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, where unscrupulous shipbreaking companies exploit minimal enforcement of environmental and safety rules to maximize profits.
On the beaches ofSouth Asia, poor and unskilled migrant workers are deployed by the thousands to break down the ships manually, which are often full of toxics such as asbestos, lead, PCBs and heavy metals. Little care is given to worker safety or protection of the environment. The toxics sicken the workers and ravage coastal ecosystems. The muddy sand and shifting grounds of tidal beaches cannot support heavy lifting equipment or safety gear, therefore accidents maim or kill hundreds of workers each year.
The statistics are alarming. The European Commission estimates that 40,000 to 1.3 million tonnes toxics (including 3,000 tonnes of asbestos) on board end-of-life vessels are exported each year to South Asia from the EU alone. In Bangladesh, children under 15 years of age count for 20% of the workforce. There and elsewhere, the total death toll runs into the thousands. Also, miles of protected mangrove trees, essential to ecosystem health and protection from monsoons, are being cut to make way for ships. This and the accompanying poisons from shipbreaking have killed or devastated dozens of aquatic species, destroying also the livelihoods of surrounding fishing communities.
The European Commission needs to take action
In March 2012, the European Commission is expected to release proposals for better enforcement of laws related to shipbreaking. Since the Commission first announced in 2006 that it would be working on this issue, publishing also a “Strategy for better ship dismantling” in 2008, no improvement has been made to the current state of play.
The NGO Shipbreaking Platform and its coalition members, including organisations based in the largest shipbreaking countries (India, Bangladesh and Pakistan), will continue to actively advocate for a European policy that gives promise of effectively reversing the current trend where end-of-life ships constitute one of the largest streams of toxic waste dumped by European companies in developing countries. More than 100 non-governmental organisations around the world; the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Toxics; and the European Parliament have voiced their support to the Platform’s human rights and environmental objectives to end the dangerous and polluting practice of breaking ships on tidal beaches.
Forceful and sustained action at the European level is especially urgent because the global phase-out of single hulled oil tankers and the current backlog of old vessels still in operation mean that the number of retired ships that are sent for breaking is reaching an all-time high. The NGO Shipbreaking Platform’s 2011 list shows more than 200 European ships were sent for breaking on the beaches of South Asia last year.
 Six ships were sent by non-EU based companies that used European flags (twice theCyprus flag and twice the Greek flag; once the British flag and once the Maltese flag).
 European Commission: Impact Assessment for an EU Strategy for Better Ship Dismantling, SEC(2008)2846
 FIDH/YPSA: Childbreaking Yards – Child Labour in the Ship Recycling Industry in Bangladesh, 2008
 FIDH/Greenpeace: The Human Cost of Breaking Ships, 2005