The ocean is vital to the survival of all life on this planet: it is the source of our rainfall, it regulates are climate, it provides us with food, and it serves as the home of countless marine animals. I think we can all agree that the ocean is fundamental to our enjoyment of life. Unfortunately, industrialization has produced massive amounts of garbage, and countries have been struggling for decades to properly manage the waste. People’s backyards and the ocean itself have become waste dumps.
In 1989, countries signed the Basel Convention and agreed to protect human health and the environment against the adverse effects of generating and managing hazardous wastes. The Convention was in response to the outflow of hazardous wastes from developed countries to developing countries, caused by polluters seeking to lessen the costs of proper waste management. State Parties to the Basel Convention and the Basel Convention Secretariat have been improving waste management practices around the world, particularly in developing countries, but new waste streams have created new challenges.
Among these new waste streams is shipbreaking. Shipbreaking is the process by which ships are dismantled so that some of their parts can be recycled back onto the market. With increasing costs of shipbreaking in developed countries, shipowners are now disposing of their ships in China, Turkey and South Asia (primarily Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan) to take advantage of low labor costs and lax environmental regulations. Since 2004, more than 80% of vessels greater than 500 gross tons have been dismantled in South Asia using a technique known as “beaching,” where ships are run up onto sandy beaches and dismantled, largely by hand. With minimal or nonexistent protections for human health or the environment, shipbreaking has resulted in substantial releases of toxic chemicals (i.e. asbestos, PCBs) into the environment and significant damage to the human health of the workers and their families. Regrettably, shipbreaking is also a big business. Bangladesh, for example, derives most of its steel from the broken ships.
The Parties to the Basel Convention will meet in October 2011. One issue to be discussed will be the appropriate international legal framework for the regulation of shipbreaking worldwide. On April 22, 2011, CIEL submitted a legal analysis of shipbreaking to the Basel Convention Secretariat. I was part of the team that conducted the analysis. The Report discusses whether the recently adopted Hong Kong Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships (adopted in 2009 by the International Maritime Organization, but yet to enter into force) could serve as the sole legal mechanism to govern shipbreaking. CIEL recommends that the Basel Convention should continue to regulate shipbreaking because it provides stronger protections than the Hong Kong Convention for the environmentally sound management of waste.
Shipbreaking is not the only problem confronting our oceans. Plastic pollution is amassing in our oceans but currently escaping international regulation. Plastic is being ingested by marine animals and may soon affect human health. I recently attended the 5th International Marine Debris Conference, organized by the UN Environment Program (UNEP) and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The Conference brought together community activists, NGOs, scientists, lawyers, politicians and businesses and adopted a Strategy to save our oceans from marine debris.
Our livelihood depends on a healthy ocean. We cannot afford to use it as a waste dump.
Polluters must take responsibility to manage their own waste and ensure that their waste is not someone-else’s problem. Profit and convenience must not be gained at the cost of the environment and people’s wellbeing.
For details on CIEL’s Report on Shipbreaking, click here.