The European Environment Council meeting in Luxembourg in late October has seen environmentalists applauding progressive EU governments like Germany, Finland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy, Ireland, Estonia, and Sweden for supporting the existing ban on the export of end-of-life ships containing hazardous wastes to developing countries. All this at a time when Europe seems to be contemplating taking retrograde steps in recent months, with some States having succeeded in pushing a European Union proposal on ship recycling that would effectively legalise the export of end-of-life ships containing hazardous wastes to countries in South Asia.
"The proposal is both profoundly immoral and illegal," Roberto Ferrigno of the NGO Shipbreaking Platform had said earlier. “This will render European governments powerless in preventing exports of asbestos and PCB laden ships from being sent to developing countries and putting vulnerable workers at risk in contravention of our own treaty obligations. We are calling on the EU, which has the capacity to recycle ships safely and cleanly, to respect its laws and create good shipyard jobs at home."
The Iron Steel Scrap & Shipbreakers' Association of India (ISSAI) was also severely critical of the proposal, saying that it went against the Basel convention and that 'India should strongly oppose the proposed EU Regulations on export of ships for recycling. Our permanent stand is that all hazardous waste which are not required for the final voyage should be removed before sending ships for recycling as we cannot accept dumping of hazardous waste in the country. Instead of making amendment to allow ships to be exported for recycling by removing hazardous materials not required for final voyage, EU is only making a show by introducing this article but the same loophole persists."
Figures indicate that more than 200 European ships- most flagged outside the EU- were sent to South Asia for demolition last year. Many contain hazardous materials such as asbestos, mineral oil, PCBs, mercury, etc. With demolition activity spiking substantially this year, too little is known about the amounts of wastes piling up on the shores and ‘sickening’ the workers and nearby communities, a prominent environmental group says. A 2006 Indian Supreme Court backed study said that 16% of shipbreaking workers showed symptoms of asbestosis.
Political will to solve the problem is “manifestly absent”, said the European Economic and Social Committee earlier this year, adding that the EC proposal was “weak and full of legal loopholes.” Critics allege that the EU Ministers are copping out when they claim that the current ban is too easily circumvented by shipowners- the problem is more a failure of enforcement of regulations, they point out.
“Currently, the combined capacity of ship recycling facilities located in OECD countries would be enough to properly recycle most of EU-flagged and EU-owned ships,” said Patrizia Heidegger, Director of ‘Shipbreaking Platform’. “Instead of scrapping the EU ban on hazardous wastes exports to developing countries, the EU should promote green ship recycling at home.”