Ship breaking is the process of disposing a ship that involves breaking it up to recycle and reuse scraps and other valuable materials such as steel, iron, and wood. Today, the ship-breaking industry is threatening the health of local workers and environments, especially in the coastal areas of Bangladesh.
Before the 1960s, ship breaking was a highly mechanized process that occurred mainly in industrialized countries, such as the U.K, the United States, Germany, and Italy. However, starting in the 1970s, countries of the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development) began to adopt an environmental agenda, leading to an increase in the cost of recycling and adequately disposing of hazardous waste. Consequently, a new waste dumping market emerged in South Asia which was willing to accept toxic waste for low compensation, particularly in Taiwan, South Korea, China, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Vietnam. There, pay and safety standards were minimal and workers were desperate for work. International trade of waste became a way to relay the challenges of dealing with hazardous waste from OECD countries to developing and underdeveloped countries.
As a result, starting in 1969, the ship breaking industry began to flourish in Bangladesh as it created job opportunities and allowed the country to meet 90% its demand for iron and steel. The ship industry in Bangladesh plays an important role in the country’s economy, as the 200 ships that are added to the local fleet every year create jobs for 25,000 workers that are directly involved with the ship breaking process, and another 200,000 workers that are indirectly involved with the ship breaking industry. It also reduces the cost of foreign exchange by reducing the need to import materials such as steel and iron that are recovered from ship breaking. Most of the ship breaking in Bangladesh occurs along the beaches of Sitakunda in Chittagong.
Local workers are mainly of low socio-economic status and often come to the coast of Sitakunda in a desperate attempt to support themselves and their families. All of the workers in the ship breaking industry are male, due to the high risk and hard nature of the job. Most of them are between 19 and 22 years old, and around 11% are children and minors. Furthermore, half of the workers are illiterate, and 40% have only primary level education. The working conditions are unbearable, with most workers having to work 10 hours a day on average to hold their jobs while risking their lives in the dangerous and unmonitored process of breaking and recycling the ships.
Ship breaking causes severe disruptions to the natural coastal environments of Bangladesh, one of the largest deltas over the world with over 710 kilometers of coastlines that provide precious habitats for a diversity of species. The industry contributes to deforestation, as trees are cut down to provide more space for recycling the ships. Then, waste from ship breaking is released into the environment in liquid, solid, or gaseous forms and that contains high concentrations of trace metals. Heavy metals are often present in the paints, coatings, anodes, and electrical equipment of discarded ships and tend to be dumped or burned in the beaches where the ships are being dismantled. These metals disrupt marine ecosystems and biodiversity by killing off the base of the marine food chain, namely phytoplankton and zooplankton. Some of these toxic substances also accumulate in fish through a process called biomagnification and eventually poison the humans that consume these seafoods. Finally, ship breaking also releases a wide range of atmospheric pollutants, such as asbestos, refrigerants, halon, carbon dioxide, and flammable gases that become highly explosive when mixed with air.
This industry is also a threat to human health. Workers are at high risk of accidental injury and death, lack drinking water, suffer unbearable workload, have low wages, and little to no access to working and safety equipment. Furthermore, many workers suffer from cancers, loss of body parts, skin diseases, and chest pains due to their exposure to toxic gas explosions, toxic oil spills, heat, sparks and fires, smog and dust, and hazardous substances such as asbestos. The same heavy metals that disrupt marine ecosystems also directly affect the health of local workers. They primarily impact the peripheral nervous systems of workers and lead to impaired hearing and vision, issues in respiratory and reproductive systems, damages to the heart and kidneys, delays in neurological development, and even death. Additionally, polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, are harmful pollutants of the ship breaking process that accumulate in the fatty tissues of organisms and cause cancer, liver damage, reproductive impairments, immune system damage, and behavioral and neurological damage.
Overall, the ship breaking industry is threatening the local workers and the coastal environments of Bangladesh, which provide valuable habitat for species, contain rich biodiversity, and provide resources for over 30 million locals. Nevertheless, due to its indispensable role in both the macro and micro economies of Bangladesh, this industry has been growing exponentially over the past few decades, despite bans from the Supreme Court and Ministry of Environment and Forest.
Written by Gwen Aubrac