Recycling is a good thing, right? Well, it depends. Recycling helps to reduce waste and pollution, conserves precious resources, and, by recovering scrap materials, allows secondary production of materials that requires far less energy input than producing them from scratch. For aluminum, the energy savings run as high as 95 percent; for copper 85 percent; plastics 80 percent; steel 74 percent; and paper 64 percent.
But recycling jobs are often dirty, low-paid, and undesirable—a far cry from sustainable “green jobs” that are now so often talked about. Perhaps the most notorious example is ship dismantling. It is a major employer in India and Bangladesh, employing many thousands of people, often migrant workers.
More than 80 percent of international trade flows via sea-lanes. Prior to the outbreak of the current global economic crisis, the world’s merchant fleet had expanded significantly. In 2007, the number of ships stood at 42,872 with a tonnage of 1,009.5 million dwt (dead weight tonnage).
The European Commission estimates that worldwide, between 200 and 600 large ships annually are broken up after having reached the end of their useful life. The International Maritime Organization puts the total number of ships demolished since 1990 at more than 10,000, but statistics are incomplete. The economic crisis has resulted in a glut of ships, and the New York Times reported in May 2009 that shipping companies were trying to sell more of them for scrap.
The ship-breaking industry is marked by great environmental and human health hazards, high accident rates, and poor working conditions including a lack of adequate protection for workers. The ships contain valuable steel and other scrap metal, but also many hazardous materials, including asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), toxic paints, and residual oil. Many workers are killed or injured each year, and the beaches where dismantlement takes place (this is typically not done at properly equipped shipyards) are liable to suffer contamination.
Following half a decade of negotiations under the auspices of the International Maritime Organization, an accord imposing some rules on ship recycling was adopted in May 2009. Among other provisions, the new “International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships” requires that vessels carry detailed inventories of hazardous materials, that decommissioning sites establish proper disposal procedures for hazardous materials as well as emergency plans, and that workers be equipped with protective gear.
But the shipping industry, allied with “flag of convenience” countries like Panama, Liberia, and the Bahamas, successfully opposed other important provisions. (“Flag of convenience” means that the nationality of the owner is different from the country of registration; this type of arrangement is often intended to evade taxes, wage standards, and other regulations.) Hazardous materials will not have to be removed by specially trained workers before a vessel can be dismantled, and there will be no international agency to watch over the industry’s practices. The agreement also does not require shipyards to substitute less toxic materials in shipbuilding.
Similar challenges need to be addressed in other parts of the recycling industry. While the recovery and reuse of materials is central to a greener economy, it is important not to overlook the human element.