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Taking toxins out of ship-breaking

Design for "green dock wharf' to detox shipbreaking
(Greendock)

A Dutch engineering company is trying to make safer the dangerous job of dismantling old ships contaminated with chemicals - by building the world’s first “green dock wharf” in Bangladesh.



Bangladesh has long been a final destination for decommissioned ships from around the world. Their scrap metal is valuable, but little effort is made to dispose of hazardous waste, such as lead paint, arsenic and asbestos-packed sealants, posing severe health risks for thousands working in the multimillion-dollar industry.



“There are so many international guidelines to dispose of these types of hazardous waste in an environmentally friendly way, but they [ship-breakers] have not been doing it,” said Muhammed Ali Shahin, coordinator of local ship-breaking watchdog Young Power in Social Action. (YPSA) 



The Dutch engineering firm GreenDock is trying to use new wharf technology to safely recycle toxins and dispose of ships. Work on the “green dock wharf”, projected to cost US$51 million to build, could begin as early as next year and be ready within another two years, with the company eyeing Vietnam, Cambodia and India for similar projects.



“We could say we want to stop the industry, but then we affect hundreds of thousands of people directly and even more indirectly,” said Doebren Mulder, co-founder and director of GreenDock. “If the waste is out of the vessel, you can burn it into energy. Then the vessel goes into a dry dock and you cut the vessel. In 24 days, you can dismantle the ship.”



Dangerous work



Some 700 commercial ships are decommissioned each year worldwide and need to be dismantled and recycled. Up to 95 percent of a ship can be reused, including iron for construction.



Lower labour costs and lax environmental regulations in South Asia make it a primary destination for old ships, according to a 2008 University of Chittagong Institute of Marine Sciences and Fisheries study of 216 workers.



The heart of the country’s ship-breaking industry, which in 2009 dismantled one-third of the world’s decommissioned ships, is near the port city of Chittagong and employs more than 20,000 people each day.



Less than half of the workers interviewed for the study in Chittagong used gloves, and only one third wore goggles on the job. Eight out of 10 workers reported respiratory problems from asbestos dust, gas explosions or other toxins as well as muscle problems. Almost all workers had eye problems from fumes and fire; two out of 10 reported skin problems, including lesions, from exposure to toxins.



Many of the hazardous materials that went into ships decades ago are now banned, including asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), tributyltin (TBT) and toxic metals, but workers burning decades-old plastic are still exposed to hazardous and flammable chemicals.



Over the past 20 years, more than 400 workers have been killed and 6,000 seriously injured on the job, according to YPSA.



Laws under pressure



Bangladesh’s highest court in August ruled that ships coming into the country to be broken up must have paperwork declaring they have been decontaminated. But shipyard operators too often look the other way, according to the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers' Association (BELA), which had filed a court petition in May before the court ruling.



“We have managed to stop the import of those ships for now, but I fear they are now getting the government on their side. They’re creating huge political pressure on the system,” said BELA’s chief executive, Syeda Rizwana Hasan.



The state collects US$130 million in revenue annually from the ship-breaking industry through taxes and duties, according to YPSA.



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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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