Shipbreaking is the process of dismantling an obsolete vessel’s structure for scrapping or disposal. Ocean-going ships, both mainly owned and used for their trade by industrial countries, are demolished, together with their toxic materials, in poorer countries. Each year, around 1000 large ocean ships reach the end of their service life and are broken down to recover steel and other materials. Yet only a fraction is handled in a safe, sustainable manner. More than two-thirds of all end-of-life ships are simply run ashore on tidal beaches in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan where unscrupulous shipbreaking companies exploit minimal enforcement of environmental and safety rules to maximize profits (in connivance with shipping companies). Likewise, even though clean and safe alternatives are available elsewhere, the vast majority of ship owners, most of which are based in the EU, Japan and China, are unwilling to internalize the costs of safe and environmentally sound ship recycling and circumvent existing laws to maximize their profits. On the beaches of South Asia, poor migrant workers are deployed by tens of thousands to break down large ships manually, which are often full of toxics such as asbestos, lead, ozone depleting substances, PCBs and heavy metals. Little care is given to worker safety or protection of the environment. Ship owners and ship breakers obtain large profit avoiding decontamination, dumping environmental costs to workers, local farmers and fishermen. They practice cost-shifting. The toxics sicken the workers and ravage coastal ecosystems. The muddy sand and shifting grounds of tidal beaches cannot support adequate heavy lifting equipment or rapid emergency response, therefore accidents maim or kill countless of workers each year. The statistics are alarming. In Bangladesh, children count for 25% of the workforce. There and elsewhere, the total death toll runs into the thousands. Also, ten thousands of protected mangrove trees, essential to the ecosystem’s health and to the protection from cyclones and floods, 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 described unequal distribution of burdens and benefits, due to an international and national uneven distribution of power, has often led to ecological distribution conflicts. While ships were dismantled in Europe and Japan in the 70s, the introduction of stricter laws and regulations to protect workers and the environment prompted the shift of shipbreaking activities to South Asia where laws are poorly enforced. The shipbreaking practices in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan have been strongly criticized by local and international groups that demand decent working conditions and environmental justice. As end-of-life vessels contain large amounts of hazardous waste, these ships are governed by international waste laws such as the UN Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Waste. An amendment to the Basel Convention which has not yet entered into force at the international level, but is transposed to European Union law via the Waste Shipment Regulation, prohibits any export of hazardous waste from the EU to developing countries. A new EU Regulation on Ship Recycling only allows for ships flying the flag of an EU Member State to be recycled in facilities listed by the European Commission as compliant with European standards. Beach-breaking yards do not meet the requirements of the new EU law. Still, the majority of end-of-life vessels, including those owned by European countries, end up on the beaches of South Asia. This is mainly because what remains to be addressed are foreign (non EU) flagged ships. Foreign flagged ships accounted in 2008 for 67% of the world total, most of them registered in the so called states of convenience (or open registers). The top five registries (Panama, Liberia, Greece, Bahamas and Marshall Islands) together accounted for 49.3% of the world's DWT. For instance, over 80% of the ship dismantled in 2004 at Alang–Sosiya Shipbreaking Yard (India) used a flag of convenience. Flags of convenience, together with fiscal havens, shell companies and cash buyers, allow under-invoicing (resulting in evasion of import tax and money laundering) and facilitate ship owner's access to the shipbreaking market. The current European Commission regulation still does not fully address this key issue.
Alang-Sosiya Shipbreaking Yard (ASSBY) Alang-Sosiya yard (India) is the largest in the world by the number of vessels dismantled, while Chittagong is the largest by tonnage. The activity started in the 1980s and today is in full operation with about 200 plots, and a few hundred ships dismantled every year. The intensity of the activity varies significantly from time to time, and can be followed with an inverse proxy: the Baltic Dry Index. This is an index that provides an assessment of the price of moving the major raw materials by sea. The higher the BDI, the lower the number of ships broken (e.g. 2003-2008), and viceversa (e.g. 2009-2016). In the late 1990s, ASSBY became the world’s largest shipbreaking yard. Success, together with an impressive industry aesthetics, brought attention from the media and criticism followed; environmental and labour groups, as well, had better structured their complains. The conflict developed at three different scales (International, National and Local) with environmentalists playing a major role, accompanied by trade unions and human rights groups. At the International level environmental NGOs, like Greenpeace and BAN (Basel Action Network), have carried out campaigns to raise public awareness in developed countries and lobbying for the implementation of regulations (notably the Basel Convention). In 2005 the Platform on Shipbreaking was created as an International Network coalition of environmental, human and labour rights organizations to challenge the global shipping industry.
In India environmental NGOs (like Toxic Links and Corporate Accountability Desk) and independent activists (like Gopal Krishna) engaged in judicial activism. They keep fighting on the Civil Written Petition on Hazardous Waste Management filed in 1995 to the Supreme Court by 'Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resources policy'. At the local level the conflict has remained latent. Workers are extremely vulnerable because of their precarious social and economic condition so that they can be easily kept under pressure and domination. Villagers, including farmers and fishermen, have expressed oral complains to authorities, normally through the Sarpanches (Head of villages). The reasons why further actions have not been undertaken might be found in their marginalization and fear to face shipbreakers, often mafia-like entrepreneurs.
The described unequal distribution of benefits and burdens has led to the rise of an ecological distribution conflict, expressed also as a valuation conflict. Different languages of valuation have been deployed by the different actors pointing out the existence of value pluralism. This therefore not only a conflict of interests, but also on values. Economic language has been refused by the villagers while environmentalists (International and National) have attempted to use it strategically. This is however the language often used by the Court and based on a trade off between development and environment. The Courts often do not recognize the incommensurability among the expressed values and give orders based on the idea that economic benefits can compensate the environmental degradation. Political power shows its ability to impose decision-procedure, standard of valuation and finally the decision.