Ship breaking yards: what are they?

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Shipbreaking yards in Asia, particularly in Bangladesh and India, use rudimentary methods to break down decommissioned ships, exposing workers to hazardous materials and causing environmental damage. The industry moved to Asia due to rising costs in the West and less stringent environmental laws. Environmental groups advocate for “dry” shipbreaking yards, which are gaining popularity in China.

A shipbreaking yard is a port, wharf or more recently beach where ships that have reached their life expectancy (25-30 years) are broken up and salvaged for their reusable or recyclable parts, typically steel and iron. Along with the precious metal salvaged from decommissioned ships, there are also a range of hazardous and toxic materials, such as asbestos, lead, mercury and waste oil, that come from broken down ships.

The major shipbreaking yards were, until the 1970s, located in Europe and America, where the shipbreaking process was highly mechanized and well regulated. However, rising shipbreaking costs coupled with cheap labor in Asia meant that much of the industry was relocated to the Indian subcontinent, China and Turkey. These areas also have less stringent environmental laws making the industry more economically viable than in the West. Shipbreaking yards and related scrap markets are currently concentrated in Bangladesh’s largest port, Chittagong, as well as Alang in the state of Gujarat in India.

Shipbreaking in the Orient is commonly undertaken by men, women and children with the shipbreaking yard being little more than the beach where the ship is moored. The ship to be demolished is driven at full speed at high tide to shore and left until the waters recede, when the salvage teams can begin their work. The process is more rudimentary than it is in the West, with torches, sledgehammers and bare hands the tools with which a super tanker of typically 240,000 tons can be demolished in a couple of months.

The dangerous conditions and stingy wages associated with shipbreaking in India and Bangladesh have drawn the ire of environmental groups, who view shipbreaking in ‘wet’ shipbreaking yards as a particularly dangerous practice which puts danger to both the rescue team and the local environment. Their recommendation of ‘dry’ shipbreaking yards has found an audience in China, where burgeoning capitalism and a huge demand for steel have seen ports such as those in Shanghai transform into modernized shipbreaking yards where the yield steel is substantially better than in India and the ‘dry’ conditions of the dismantling placate environmentalists.

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