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  • Writer's pictureSarah Whiteford

What is ship recycling?

Ship recycling has many names, also called ship breaking, ship cracking, ship dismantling, and ship demolition. Not all of these methods are created equal, depending on the location and who is doing the dismantling. At its core, ship disposal is taking ships apart for parts that can be reused or removing raw materials like steel that can be remade into something else. Most ships have a lifespan of about 25-30 years, after which they may not be economically viable for shipping, but still contain many materials that can be repurposed. Ship-breaking provides a way to reuse materials and recycle steel that would otherwise be sunk in the ocean or wasted. We’re going to take a look at how the work is done, where it’s done, environmental and worker conditions, and green recycling.

The process of dismantling a vessel is very labor intensive and is one of the most dangerous industries in the world. Shipyards in Asia do most of the work, with approximately 92% of the world total of demolishing ships being done in Asia and the largest yard being Alang Ship Breaking Yard, according to Wikipedia. Most of the vessels come from China, Greece, and Germany, and at least 225,000 workers work in ship-breaking yards in China, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, the last two of which reuse a lot of ship steel to supplement their own steel needs. There are only three options for an end-of-life ship: sink it to create an artificial reef, scrap it for materials, or preserve it for museums. Recycling is the best way to extract the value from vessels by reusing materials and keeping them out of the ocean or using additional resources in upkeep.

Crane removing a steel section from a ship

“Removing steel plates from a ship using cranes at Alang Ship Breaking Yard (India)”. By Nayeem Noor - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0. Image from Wikipedia.


Disposal of vessels didn’t always focus on reuse: the first wooden-hulled ships would be sunk, set on fire, or dismantled for reuse of the timber. With the advent of metal hulls in the 1800s, nations like Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Japan started purchasing British ships for scrap metal.

An interesting fact: if a ship was damaged, it was common in Victorian times to remove the last letter of the vessel’s name so as not to tarnish the brand of the company on the ship’s last voyage.

In the early 1900s ships would be run aground and dismantled with electric shears, wrecking balls, and torches, similar to the methods of developing countries today. Artifacts and pieces of special vessels considered valuable might be sold at auctions.

Old vessel being dismantled on the water.

“Dismantling of Redoutable in Toulon, 1912”. By Agence Rol - Gallica, Public Domain. Image from Wikipedia.

Shipbreaking was common in the United Kingdom and the United States until the late 1900s when countries with lower labor costs took over. The industry is highly dependent on costs of labor, although not all areas started breaking down ships due solely to low costs - in 1960 a Greek ship called M D Alpine got stranded on the coast of Chittagong, then a part of East Pakistan. After years of being beached, Chittagong Steel bought it and spent years scrapping it, starting the shipbreaking industry in Pakistan. In the 1980s, regulations tightened on hazardous waste disposal, and ships were sent to other countries, producing more environmental problems that resulted in the Basel Convention of 1989. By 2004, ships were classified as “toxic waste” according to a Basel Convention decision, requiring approval of the importing state.

The decommissioning process

Shipbreakers bid for a ship and the highest bidder gets the vessel, usually purchased from an international broker who deals in old ships. Poorer environmental regulations mean higher prices paid for the vessels, which causes environmental and safety concerns. Some areas still operate similarly to old methods, ships are usually beached at high tide so they can be easily accessed. Conditions vary widely depending on the country and company doing the disassembly. In some areas, conditions are dangerous with no safety equipment and no good way to dispose of hazardous chemicals. In other locations, workers are provided the correct PPE and tools, and materials are disposed of properly. For a ship of 40,000 tonnes, break-down can take about three months for 50 workers. Fluids are drained, including fuel, hydraulic fluid, coolant, lubricants, and firefighting liquid, according to Wikipedia. Waste can then be sent for processing and hazardous materials sent for proper disposal. Many recycling yards have improved conditions to meet IMO’s guidelines with impervious floors, drainage systems, cranes, and worker training for each specific vessel.

Large ship with the front cut off, exposing the interior.

“Ship recycling in Alang”. By Nayeem Noor - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0. Image from Wikipedia.

Some locations have recycling rates as high as 98%. Inventories of dangerous substances are taken and ships are taken to a dry dock or pier, with a dry dock preferred for containment of spills. Vessels are stripped down to the bare hull and reusable pieces sold off. Asbestos that may be found in the engine room has to be put in custom plastic wrapping and put in sealed steel containers to be landfilled. Hazardous wastes like lead-acid batteries and circuit boards can be recycled into new items. Incineration can also be used. Once accessed, engines can be sold for reuse.

Sustainable recycling

The Conversation did a study of shipbreaking yards and determined that none of the current methods completely controlled the spread of hazardous materials. The popular beaching method leaves many materials to sink into the mudflats on the beach. The Conversation then developed a sustainable and environmentally friendly process involving a specially designed bed with four layers to catch hazardous materials, preventing them from flowing into waterways or leaching into the ground. The layers would contain concrete, pebbles, and sand, using readily available materials. Shipmakers and shipping companies could be a big help in taking care of the waste after a ship is deemed no longer seaworthy, similar to some requirements with electronic waste.

Workers working on an impermeable floor, cutting apart pieces of a vessel with cranes in the background

“Steel plate cutting using gas cutter at Alang Ship Breaking Yard (India)”. By Nayeem Noor - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0. Image from Wikipedia.

There are also options for third parties to monitor and advise on green recycling of vessels. The ever-increasing focus on sustainability and a circular economy means that putting more effort into the deconstruction of vessels can be good for the environment, people, and a company’s reputation. Choosing a good yard is a start and adding in a third party to ensure compliance is even better. Companies like Sea Sentinels provide services to ensure vessels are decommissioned properly without incidents and under hazardous materials regulations. As the focus on ESG continues to grow, taking these extra steps can minimize risk and maximize reputation.

The Basel Convention

The Basel Convention defined ships as toxic waste, limiting their trade. Their goal is to ensure responsible recycling of vessels, including avoiding sinking out-of-date ships in the ocean. They are a part of the “NGO Shipbreaking Platform, a global coalition of environmental, human rights, and labor rights organizations also preventing ships from being beached in developing countries” ( They also have an ‘Off the Beach!’ pledge for companies to proper recycling facilities for old vessels. They also advocate recycling old Navy vessels that are usually sunk during target practice.

Navy SINKEX exercise

SINKEX exercise. Image from The Maritime Executive.

Hong Kong Convention in 2009

In 2009, the Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships was held in Hong Kong, China. 63 countries sent delegates to the convention that was targeted toward recycling ships that are at the end of their lives and making certain they don’t pose unnecessary threats to humans or the environment. The Hong Kong Convention seeks to address problems with ship recycling, including that ships can contain “environmentally hazardous substances such as asbestos, heavy metals, hydrocarbons, ozone-depleting substances and others. It also addresses concerns raised about the working and environmental conditions at many of the world's ship recycling locations”, according to IMO. After three and half years of work, the regulations encompass how to ensure safe and environmentally friendly recycling while keeping the recycling facilities safe and establishing an enforcement mechanism for ship recycling with requirements for certification and reporting. Some of these requirements include: inventory of hazardous materials on each ship, prohibited hazardous materials, and surveys throughout the life of the ship to inventory hazardous materials, including before recycling begins.

The Hong Kong Convention requires at least 15 states, including 40% of the world’s merchant shipping by gross tonnage to sign before it goes into effect. It also has requirements for annual ship recycling volume by tonnage. The convention opened for signatures in September 2009 and remains open. The number of states who have signed the convention is at 17, with those 17 states meeting the requirement for recycling tonnage. Unfortunately, the gross tonnage of merchant shipping requirement is 29.77%, falling short of the 40% requirement. The Convention has yet to be ratified, according to Wikipedia.

There is a lot of effort that goes into ship breaking. It’s a very manual process and one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. There are many options to get rid of old vessels, with the worst being sinking to the best being recycling at a responsible shipyard. As countries like India look to pass laws for the responsible recycling of ships and the Hong Kong Convention is ratified, conditions will continue to improve to make ship deconstruction safer for the workers and the environment. There’s a lot of valuable materials on an old vessel and a lot of hazardous materials that need proper disposal. If you need to dispose of an old vessel, please do it responsibly!


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