You Break It (up), you buy it: HK Convention seeks to drive safe ship recycling

Around 90 percent of the goods we buy arrive in Hong Kong via ship. While ships play a vital role in world trade, they pose a serious threat to the environment when they are due to retire.


A convention signed in Hong Kong is being ratified in parliaments around the world even as the our planet faces increasing fallout from a surplus of retired ships.

Old ships are nasty

The problem when dismantling ships is the myriad on-board hazardous substances such as asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), glass fibre, solid foam and waste oil that released. These materials pose a severe threat to the environment and human health.

Workers who take apart recyclable materials, such as steel, off the vessels are exposed to these hazardous materials.

While recycling is a sound way to dispose of a ship, current methods are often criticized. Labour groups have been pressing for more regulations of the ship recycling industry.

The Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships (HKC), passed by the UN’s International Maritime Organisation in 2009, was created to meet these calls by setting internationally acceptable standards.

“The HKC is aimed at ensuring that ships, when being recycled after reaching the end of their operational lives, do not pose any unnecessary risks to human health, safety and to the environment,” says the International Maritime Organisation.

The HKC arrives at a time when developing countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have become a dumping ground for international ships due to cheap and surplus labour, rudimentary environmental and labour safety standards and large domestic market for scrap steel.

Chittagong, in Bangladesh, is now the world’s biggest shipbreaking hub, where 230 ships were recycled last year. Labour advocates say the work has claimed more than 125 lives in the last 10 years. Working conditions are also horrendous, as workers are not provided with protection.

“It is an iconic step to raise global awareness of the environmental issues regarding ship recycling,” says Ms Natalia Munoz Acevedo, an environmental engineer at Sea Sentinels. “For the first time the global community discussed how to address the issue.”

But the HKC is not effective yet. It will need 15 states and 40 percent of world merchant shipping to sign up to come into force. So far, only Norway, Congo, France, Belgium, Panama, Denmark and Turkey have ratified the convention.

Under the Convention, ships to be sent for recycling will be required to carry an inventory of hazardous materials (IHM), which will be specific to each ship. Meanwhile, ship recycling yards will be required to provide a plan that specify how each ship will be recycled and how hazardous materials are handled in an environmentally safe and approved manner.

“The most significant term of the HKC is the requirement of hazardous materials to be identified. IHM will be a compulsory document for all vessels,” says Ms Munoz Acevedo.

In other words, all ships must carry a valid certificate on IHM, otherwise the port state will carry out a detailed inspection.

“The HKC also established safe procedures for recycling ships, which will lead to better practices.” She adds, “The regulations under the HKC are evolving to become more specific and clearer, and management guidelines have been proposed.”

Though it is still ineffective worldwide, the HKC is already inspiring other countries to take action, according to Ms Munoz Acevedo.

“The HKC is a kick start for other regional regulations, such as the EU Ship Recycling Regulation and China’s National Sword Policy,” she notes.

The EU Regulation, which will come in to force in December 2020, stipulates that ships calling EU ports must have an IHM, and that ships flying the flag of an EU member state must use safe and sound recycling facilities that appear on the European list of ship recycling facilities.

Meanwhile, Chinese policy requires that only national ships can be handled in well-managed shipbreaking yards in the country by the end of this year. China no longer allows foreign ships to be dismantled on its soil.