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A worker uses a cutting torch on a large block cut from a vessel at the Galloo ship recycling plant in Ghent. -Reuters

Cleaning up shipbreaking

EU to ban owners from scrapping ships on South Asian beaches
Updated 10 Apr, 2015 11:57am
A worker uses a cutting torch on a large block cut from a vessel at the Galloo ship recycling plant in Ghent.
A worker uses a cutting torch on a large block cut from a vessel at the Galloo ship recycling plant in Ghent.

Of 1,026 ocean-going ships recycled in 2014, 641 were taken apart on beaches in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, according to figures from the NGO Shipbreaking Platform, which campaigns for an end to the hazardous practice.

The Galloo shipbreaking plant in Ghent, Europe's largest, processes some 35,000 tonnes of metal every year. It employs only about 30 staff, with most of the heavy work done by machines.

The European Union plans to impose strict new rules on how companies scrap old tankers and cruise liners, run aground and dismantled on beaches in South Asia.

Workers pause as they dismantle parts of a French seismic vessel at the Galloo ship recycling plant in Ghent.
Workers pause as they dismantle parts of a French seismic vessel at the Galloo ship recycling plant in Ghent.

However the practice in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, hazardous for humans and the environment, will still be hard to stop.

Tankers, cruise liners and other old vessels are rammed onto beaches and stripped down by hundreds of unskilled workers using simple tools such as blowtorches. Chemicals leak into the ocean when the tide comes in.

Workers dismantle steel plates of a decommissioned ship at the Alang shipyard.
Workers dismantle steel plates of a decommissioned ship at the Alang shipyard.

European recyclers are among those set to benefit from the revamped standards.

"Large companies have started to come here," said Peter Wyntin, head of recycling at the Ghent facility. "They just can't afford the bad press any more of dismantling ships on some beach."

Workers dismantle the engine bearing of a decommissioned ship at the Alang shipyard in the western Indian state of Gujarat.
Workers dismantle the engine bearing of a decommissioned ship at the Alang shipyard in the western Indian state of Gujarat.
General view of the Galloo ship recycling plant in Ghent.
General view of the Galloo ship recycling plant in Ghent.
A worker uses a hand fan as he watches a television during his break inside worker's rest area at the Alang shipyard in the western Indian state of Gujarat.
A worker uses a hand fan as he watches a television during his break inside worker's rest area at the Alang shipyard in the western Indian state of Gujarat.
A worker dismantles a ship at the Alang yard.
A worker dismantles a ship at the Alang yard.
A worker dismantles the hull of a barge at the Galloo plant.
A worker dismantles the hull of a barge at the Galloo plant.
General view of the Galloo ship recycling plant in Ghent.
General view of the Galloo ship recycling plant in Ghent.
A crane lifts a container at the Galloo ship recycling plant.
A crane lifts a container at the Galloo ship recycling plant.
Workers on a vessel at the Alang shipyard.
Workers on a vessel at the Alang shipyard.
A worker pauses near a barge at the Galloo plant.
A worker pauses near a barge at the Galloo plant.
Depending on raw material prices, ship owners can make up to $500 per tonne of steel from an Indian yard, compared with $300 in China.
Depending on raw material prices, ship owners can make up to $500 per tonne of steel from an Indian yard, compared with $300 in China.
The volume of ships recycled at the Galloo yard has more than quadrupled over the past 10 years.
The volume of ships recycled at the Galloo yard has more than quadrupled over the past 10 years.

"It's like stepping into another world, another scale, where I am dwarfed by heaps of scrap metal." Francois Lenoir, Reuters photographer

My first impression when I arrive at the shipbreaking site is a sense of being small.

It's like stepping into another world, another scale, where I am dwarfed by heaps of scrap metal the height of a ten-storey building.

Then there is the intensity of the site, with several teams working on a multitude of boats at the same time - producing a bewildering cacophony of drilling, cutting and sawing sounds.

It is all very photogenic. While one team cleans and empties a huge seismic research boat, a second cuts blocks from a barge, and a third one works on the ground to recycle dismantled parts.

Not far from there, a crane deals with a heap of scrap metal while another mechanical arm cuts huge pieces of steel.

I soon understand why we had to be escorted during our first visit here: for obvious reasons of security but also for our own safety. The activity on the site can be very dangerous and the access to several navy vessels was forbidden during asbestos removal.

Despite the high level of mechanisation and automation, employees still do manual labour in hazardous and toxic conditions, such as removing asbestos, to recycle 35,000 tons of steel a year.

The next day I am allowed to work without escorts. I wear a hard hat and a safety vest for visibility and protection, but in this extremely noisy environment I’d feel safer having eyes in the back of my head.