Sea-faring constructions are built to last. But when ships and drilling platforms finally reach the end of their careers – careers which can last as long as 30 years – their owners can’t afford to just let them rust in a harbour or sink into the sea.
Instead, they turn to the ship-breakers: huge operations involving hundreds of labourers who dismantle multi-million pound vessels to sell off their parts and materials for a profit. We take a look at how ship-breakers across the world are recycling these enormous, retired ships and rigs – as well as the serious dangers they face.
Every little helps
When you’re dealing with multi-million pound sea-craft, it pays to be highly efficient. In Bangladesh, for example, where nearly 200 ships were dismantled in 2013, ship-breaking yards can recycle more than 90% of every ship, turning a profit of roughly US$1 million in just three or four months.
And it’s a growing practice. On Aliaga beach, on Turkey’s Aegean coast, scrapyards are set to demolish 11 oil rigs this year, compared to just one in 2014. Each drilling platform can yield as much as 15,000 tons of steel, which is sold off as scrap to be used elsewhere.
With newly built oil rigs costing more than US$600 million, according to Bloomberg, it starts to put the true cost of business electricity into perspective, through every stage of the supply chain – it’s no wonder that their owners sell their retired assets to the ship-breakers.
Breaking the unbreakable
These ships and rigs are built to withstand extreme conditions during their working lives – and that means they’re not easy to take apart.
After the ship-breakers buy a retired vessel from an international broker, a specialist captain carefully lands it at the shipyard or beach, either by piloting the ship directly or by using tugboats.
The first step is to drain the ship of its potentially dangerous liquids: engine oil, fuel and fire-fighting chemicals are all resold for use somewhere else.
Next, any valuable components are stripped away and sold to salvage dealers. Engines, wiring, furniture, lifeboats and batteries can all find new purposes in other vehicles or other industries.
Finally, left with little more than a steel carcass, the heavy cutting and stripping of the ship’s hull and its structure can begin. Valuable metals are moved ashore and cut down into smaller parts, and can then either be resold or melted down for other uses.
A risky business
In many countries, ship-breakers follow the strict environmental and safety precautions outlined by the 2003 Basel Convention. Hazardous substances are accounted for before any work begins, and they’re safely removed and stored separately.
Unfortunately, in some other countries, proper safety precautions aren’t always used. The ship-breaking yards in Bangladesh, for example, reportedly hold stockpiles of 79,000 tonnes of asbestos and 210,000 tonnes of ozone-depleting substances.
Beyond environmental pollution, there are also huge risks to the labourers. Undrained fuel or gas leaks can cause fires and explosions, and uncontrolled cutting or dismantling without cranes can cause huge chunks of hull to fall unexpectedly, crushing any workers below.
‘On average, one worker dies a week in the yards and every day a worker is injured,’ Muhammed Shahin told the Guardian in 2012. ‘It seems like nobody really cares. Workers are easily replaceable to the yard owners: if one is lost they know another 10 are waiting to replace him. The government collects the taxes and turns a blind eye.’
Bangladesh – 90% recycling, $1 million profit; 194 ships in 2013
Oil rigs in Turkey, 15,000 tons of steel; new rigs cost $600 million
Dismantling techniques and asbestos stockpiles, etc.