Business, Finance & Economics

Where should old cargo ships go to die? Some Europeans say bring them home

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The Van Heyghen ship recycling yard in Ghent, the Netherlands, is littered with mounds of scrap metal from dismantled ships, but almost entirely from military and fishing ships. Most of Europe's big cargo ships are sent to South Asia to be recycled under poor labor and environmental conditions.


Christopher Werth

At a shipyard in Ghent, Peter Wyntin, of Van Heyghen Recycling, climbs a steep, wooden plank aboard the ragged hull of a hulking, 650-foot long ship.

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It’s what's left of the Tellier, a liquefied natural gas tanker built in the 1970s that’s now being broken down for scrap metal.

The top of the vessel has been completely cut away. Wyntin stands on the narrow, jagged edge of the ship’s hull, 26 feet above the water, and looks down into the nearly empty shell of the engine room.

“There was about 55 or 60 tons of asbestos” in the ship, Wyntin says. “So that alone took us seven to eight months, removal of asbestos."

Wyntin says old ships like this can be full of asbestos and other toxic substances that are expensive to remove safely. That’s one reason few big, privately-owned ships are recycled in Europe nowadays.

In his 18 years with the company, Wyntin says, “that’s the first big vessel I know of that’s recycled in Europe.”

Instead, most of the world’s big commercial ships are dismantled in South Asia — usually India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. And not in shipyards, but on beaches, where labor and environmental standards are notoriously bad.

European environmental groups want to change that.

“The beach is a natural habitat, and it is not compatible with the demolition of ships,” says Jacky Bonnemain, of the Paris-based organization Robin des Bois.

Bonnemain says because there are no tough international standards for ship breaking, groups like his often turn to public pressure to have ships recycled responsibly.

“For us, the most important is to identify the owner of the ship,” Bonnemain says.

In the case of the Tellier, Bonnemain says the owner, the French energy giant GDF Suez, was more concerned than most about its image because it’s partly owned by the French government.

“They know that this ship, if it is sent to Asia, will create some bad publicity,” Bonnemain says.

GDF Suez did not respond when asked to comment for this story. Patrizia Heidegger, of the advocacy group Shipbreaking Platform, would like to see more commercial vessels recycled in Europe.

“Compared to what we see in South Asia,” Heidegger says, “ship recycling in Europe is green.”

But for most ship owners, she says, where to recycle a ship boils down to how much a recycler is willing to pay for it.

“They just go for the biggest possible profit, wherever they can get it,” she says.

In India and Bangladesh, where demand for scrap is booming and standards are lax, old vessels fetch roughly $400 a ton, compared to about $100 in Europe, where recyclers face high labor and environmental costs.

That means with the Tellier weighing in at more than 10,000 tons, its owners may have lost a boatload of money by recycling the ship in Belgium.

“If they’re losing $300 per ton, they’re losing $3 million,” says Nikos Mikelis, of Global Marketing Systems, one of the world’s largest buyers of ships headed for demolition. “They’re not doing that happily.”

Mikelis opposes efforts to recycle more vessels in Europe. Instead, he says, South Asian recyclers can improve their beaching operations.

“It’s not beaching that is the problem,” he says. “It’s the attitude to pollution.”

Until last year, Mikelis was with the UN’s International Maritime Organization, where he worked on a global agreement on ship breaking, known as the Hong Kong Convention.

That pact would tighten regulations for participating countries, but it hasn’t come into force, and environmentalists say it doesn’t go far enough.

Meanwhile, the European Union is finalizing its own regulations for European ships sent to Asia. But Patrizia Heidegger of Shipbreaking Platform says those regulations don’t go far enough, either. For one, she wants Europe to set up a fund to help cover the cost of responsibly recycling ships.

She says every ship should be forced to pay into that fund to at least partly cover the price gap between South Asia and Europe.

It’s that price gap that keeps Belgian ship recycler Peter Wyntin from competing globally.

Wyntin says his shipyard has the capacity to double the tonnage of ships it recycles each year. And he wants South Asian recyclers to face the toughest regulations possible. To begin with, he says, beaching should be banned.

“This is something that is not acceptable anymore in the 21st century,” he says.

Wyntin argues that would help level the playing field. And at the moment, his company may need all the help it can get. With scrap metal prices at a low, he ultimately expects to lose money on breaking up the Tellier.

  • Shipbreaking 02.jpg

    A cross section of the Tellier, a 1970s-era liquified natural gas tanker being dismantled by Van Heyghen Recycling at a shipyard in Ghent, the Netherlands. A Van Heyghen spokesman says the Tellier is the first big commercial vessel he knows of that's been recycled in Europe in 18 years.


    Christopher Werth

  • Shipbreaking 05.jpg

    A sign warns of asbestos at a ship recycling facility in Ghent, the Netherlands. The removal of toxic substances is one of the biggest challenges and expenses in recycling old ships, and one reason few old cargo ships are scrapped in Europe. Most these days go to South Asia.


    Christopher Werth

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    Laborers pull an iron rope before separating a portion of a beached ship into scrap metal at a ship breaking yard near Karachi, Pakistan, in 2011. As many as 15,000 workers brave brutal conditions to earn as little as $4 a day tearing down ships at Gaddani beach on the coast of the Arabian Sea.


    Akhtar Soomro/Reuters

  • RTR2YKNP.jpg

    A laborer connects chains before separating parts of a ship for scrap metal at the Gaddani ship breaking yard. High demand for scrap metal and lax regulation of working conditions and environmental standards have made South Asian countries a magnet for cargo ships at the end of their lives.


    Akhtar Soomro/Reuters

  • RTX1235C.jpg

    Workers return from a shift dismantling a wrecked ship at a ship-breaking yard in Chittagong, Bangladesh, in July 2013. Bangladesh is dependent on ship-breaking for its domestic steel requirements. About 30,000 workers work in the ship-breaking industry in Chittagong, a highly polluted coastal belt of more than 12 miles, and environmental organizations have said the number of accidents and casualties at the yard is believed to be the highest in the region.


    Andrew Biraj/Reuters

  • Shipbreaking 10.jpg

    Peter Wyntin, of Van Heyghen Recycling, stands in front of the final remains of the Tellier, a 650-foot former liquified natural tanker. Wyntin says the Tellier is the first big commercial ship he knows of to be recycled in Europe in almost 20 years. Activists were able to pressure the ship's owner to scrap it here because the company is partly owned by the French government.


    Christopher Werth

  • Shipbreaking 07.jpg

    A worker cuts through a barnacle-encrusted propeller at a ship recycling yard in Ghent, Belgium. Better safety standards account for part of the price gap between recycling ships in Europe and in South Asia. Some activists are pushing for better practices in South Asia while others want Europe to establish a fund to help cover the cost of responsibly recycling ships.


    Christopher Werth