Recycling of a ship denotes the end of a forgone sea-worthy vessel. In fact, a classical definition for recycling of a ship would be the end of the circle of life. While one of the foremost reasons for recycling a ship is to provide support to a degenerating environment, the fact that recycling of a ship involves breaking down of several different materials both hazardous and flammable; most countries which engage into recycling of ships have always been bedevilled with health, worker-safety and environmental issues. The present article discusses the undeniable concerns prevalent in the ship recycling industry and its impact on the environment both marine and earthly. It critically analyses the commercial aspect involved in the process of recycling and throws light on various international and national legislations on this matter. Lastly, it lays down the way forward for recycling of ships in the world.


“Recycling of ships is by far considered the most environment-friendly and economically sound way of getting rid of end-of-life ships”. [1]Today ships have a lifecycle of 25 to 30 years before the machinery degeneration makes them unseaworthy or commercially impractical to run. This brings about a situation of unseaworthy vessels piling up as depreciating assets and major environmental hazards. These hazards are majorly to marine life as well as the seas and oceans itself. Once a vessel reaches unseaworthiness, it is usually recommended that the vessel be scrapped keeping in view the safety and sustainability of the environment, at large. 

The need for shipbreaking has been on a steady rise, and is seen directly proportional to the rise in marine trade. This makes the ship-breaking industry a massive employment generator. One of the most sizeable examples of growth of the Ship Breaking industry traces all the way back to 1983, when the first vessel had beached at Alang, Bhavnagar, India [2] for scrappage and thereafter within just a year almost 52 more ships beached for breakage [3]. Since then, Alang in India and several other shipbreaking yards all over the world have seen a significant rise of end-of-life ships being brought in for scrappage. 

In fact, over the years, the ship breaking business has converted into recycling of scrap vessels in order to reutilize the materials and aid in sustaining the environment by mindful disposal of hazardous substances and materials either used to build the vessel or part of the fuel or by products emanating from shipbreaking. 

Until the late 1970s and early 1980s ship breaking was concentrated in the US and Europe, however, stricter environmental laws have shifted the ship breaking industry eastward as the legal framework can be easily circumvented. 

Regulating Ship Breaking: A Critical Perspective 

The influx of stricter environmental regulations has caused a gradual increase in commercial waste management and disposal of hazardous which is a direct result of the environmental degradation and dangerous and unsafe work conditions and the treatment of the aforesaid by the authorities and legislations and their treatment of Ship Breaking activities, substances. As a result of the aforesaid, the charting out of toxic wastes, including end-of-life ships, to developing countries where legislation is weaker, has increased multi-fold. Throughout the years, there have been attempts to reinforce environmental acceptability of the ship breaking activities such as Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal following numerous hazardous waste trafficking scandals [4].Apart from the waste disposal which in itself poses an enormous task for this industry to cope with considering the tightening environment specific laws, another aspect that needs proper focus is the situation and the safety of the workers employed in the industry Accordingly International Labour Organisation (“ILO”), has also termed shipbreaking one of the “the most dangerous occupations” in the world. In its 289th session the ILO issued a set of criteria to supervise the breaking and disposal of ships [5]. Considering the just conditions for workers employed in this industry, Greenpeace in collaboration with the International Federation for Human Rights (“FIDH”) and Young Power in Social Action (“YPSA”) preferred a groundbreaking report [6] opening the worlds’ eyes to substantial number of casualties and accidents that alter the life of the workers employed and records of which are mere statistical data in the books of the authorities. This report largely concentrated on two countries i.e.; the major players of Ship Breaking: India and Bangladesh. This concentration is because of the lackadaisical approach of the legal-enforcement authorities in these countries. Ministries of the End-of-Life Ship Exporting Countries are averting their eyes to what is happening with the End-of-Life Ships they export to India and Bangladesh. They did not comply with their obligations under the Basel Convention despite ratifying or becoming signatories. [7]

This has caused severe Human Rights issues to worry about. The worker’s conditions are so depreciated that workers are vulnerable to cause an epidemic amongst themselves. Hygiene apart, the exposure to the hazardous materials while shipbreaking exposes a carcinogenic risk to almost all workers employed there. [8]

What followed the aforesaid regulations was a string of conventions and policies which today regulate the trade of end-of-life ships to various ship breakers in the leading ship breaking countries like China, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In 2004 The Basel Convention’s 7th Conference of Parties [9] recognised that end-of-life ships containing PCBs, asbestos, heavy metals and other hazardous substances may be legally defined as hazardous wastes in international law, recognising that the vast majority of ships being broken today are scrapped in violation of the spirit, if not the letter of the obligations of the Basel Convention. Thereafter, the European Union Waste Shipment Regulation 2006 issued a ban on all exporting of hazardous waste materials to non-OECD countries and, furthermore, all exports of waste for disposal outside the EU/EFTA and the European Union Ship Recycling Regulation 2013 set requirements for ship recycling activities, and includes environmental protection and occupational health and safety standards.

In May 2009, to strengthen the much needed legislative/regulatory infrastructure of the Ship Breaking industry, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) adopted the Hong Kong Convention on the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships (“HKC”). Today, the HKC narrates the procedure to be adopted for survey and certification of ships that are slated to be recycled [10] as well as for the authorisation and licensing of ship-recycling facilities [11]. The HKC further mandates ratified member states to disallow and/or restrict the usage of certain hazardous materials on ships registered under their flags or berthed at their ports, shipyards, drydocks or offshore terminals. [12] In mandatory compliance of the aforesaid restriction of usage, the HKC contemplates carrying out inspection of ships for verification and that such inventory should be certified by either an International Certificate on Inventory of Hazardous Materials or an International Ready for Recycling Certificate[13] Most importantly, the HKC obliges member states to incorporate national domestic legislation imposing requisite sanctions on ships and ship-recycling facilities which are in contravention of HKC. [14] The Enforcement of the HKC becomes a tenable issue because the less number of ratifications it has received and therefore has not come formally into force. The alternate explanation is that for ratification, a ratifying member state must represent 40% of world merchant shipping by gross tonnage, and must have a combined maximum annual ship recycling volume of not less than 3% of their combined gross tonnage for the past 10 years It cannot be emphasized enough that the HKC must become as enforceable as possible to make ship breaking an activity that ceases to degenerate the environment and begins to sustain it to the best available avenue. This resonates in the remarks passed by Kitack Lim [15], “Ten years after the adoption of IMO’s Hong Kong Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships, in May 2009, there has been progress with voluntary application of its requirements, but the treaty needs to enter into force for it to be widely implemented” [16].Despite the HKC being introduced, pollution levels of hazardous material have not reduced nor has the situation of the coastal environment improved. The oil residues and the sludge carried out of the beached vessels has simply massacred the coasts of around the ship breaking yards. Vessels destined for scrap at Ship Breaking yards are “waste” [17], and in most cases likely to contain hazardous waste as well. Ship breaking also causes devastating pollution to the environment. The ships are laden with asbestos which is used as a heat insulator. The absence of asbestos disposal procedures during scrapping, workers and the surrounding environment are exposed to the asbestos which may cause cancer and asbestosis. In shipbreaking yards and beaches, asbestos fibres and specks fly around in the open air, and workers take out asbestos insulation materials with their bare hands. Exposure to heavy metals found in parts of ships such as paints, coatings, anodes and electrical equipment can result in cancer. Due to the beaching method, ships are broken down on sand banks without any containment. Oils are drained away into the open sea by drilling of holes and the sludge and other nonbiodegradable contaminants are casually dumped into unsealed pits in the ground. The tides come in and take away these dumps for the contaminators to repeat the process. The HKC and the EU Restrictions have taken several bold steps to put a stop to these methods. Ship breaking yards however, have found ways around such restrictions. To circumambulate the EU restrictions, Scrap Vessel dealers have adopted the change of flag method. EU flagged ships merely change the flags of their vessels to such countries’ flags whose legal framework does not obligate them to comply with strict norms prior to scrappage. This exercise is known as Flag of Convenience. This process absolves the ship owners of all responsibilities to clean their ships and bear the cost of dismantling the vessels in an environmentally sound manner. Research provides that some of these beach environments have shown high levels of carcinogen and pollution contamination of essential groundwater reserves around as well as a terrible loss of marine life and fisheries related activities. It is merely an understatement to say that Ship Breaking is a polluting and environmental degrading industry.

The Issue Surrounding Ship Breaking in India

When it comes to Ship Breaking, it’s always a sticky wicket, with regulatory norms increasing, the Ship Breaking yards, though compliant with most updated requisites, are now facing slower business. This, despite the fact that 93 recycling yards in India and Bangladesh have now been validated by major classification societies as compliant with the requirements of the HKC even though it has not yet entered force, none have been approved by the European Union (EU). [18] This imbalance is caused due to political tides where certain entities are driven to provide for the workers and the environment and certain entities are driven to provide for the commercial sectors. Today, the South East Asian countries of China, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh together lead the shipbreaking industry contributing to almost 90-95% of ship breaking concentrated within these regions. Needless to say, the pollution situation in these regions is not ideal either. In fact, the South East Asia has become the world’s dump of hazardous and dangerous material as several hundreds of ships are exported to this region containing environmental unfriendly materials such as asbestos, oil residues and heavy metals and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs), causing an undeniable exposure and potential risk to workers undertaking the physical breaking and the environment itself; both marine and geological, if the harmful residue is not disposed off in an environmentally proper manner. It is, in fact, for this very reason, countries across the world are gradually legislating control of such activity through guidelines for breaking, labour contracting and creating an infrastructure that is eradicating misuse and abuse in the industry. 

The Ship Breaking Industry is represented largely by the beach along the coast of Gujarat, at Alang, Bhavnagar, which is one of the most sought-after shipbreaking locations for vessels impending scrappage in India. It was almost two decades ago that Greenpeace in 1998, published information about the hazardous working conditions and increasing pollution in Alang. Pursuant to legal action initiated by various NGOs, the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India instituted a Committee of Technical Experts on Ship Breaking Activities (ECSB). [19] The ECSB committee preferred a report pursuant to which the Hon’ble Supreme Court directed the Ship Breaking industry to come within bounds of national and international labour and environment conventions and laws. This gave way for the introduction of the Ship Recycling Code, 2013 and the incorporation of a waste reception facility. Despite this, there has been no drastic change in conditions in Alang, and the situation continues to remain deplorable. 

There came a time when the people of India and several NGOs protested to ship breaking in India itself stating that Ship Breaking facilities and players in that field did not have the equipment, the knowledge or the capacity to dispose of hazardous material such as asbestos in even an environment-friendly manner, let alone in a safe and organised manner. This came to light in a widely known Public Interest Litigation filed against scrapping of French Navy’s Aircraft Carrier, the Clemenceau and Blue Lady [20]. 

Tracing the history of the Ship Breaking Activity in India, it resembles a homogenous amalgamation of legislative attempts, judicial verdicts and people spirited NGO’s working in tandem of the Supreme Court’s aim to achieve maximum resolution of issues. A summary of the infrastructure created by Indian Legislation & Regulation basis the shipbreaking in India can be understood through the Shipbreaking Code, 2013 (“SC13”) and the Recycling of Ships Act, 2019 (“RSA”). The SC13 recognises 3 significant stages of the process of Shipbreaking. The first stage is that when the vessel is anchored off the coast of the India awaiting beaching call. The Second is when the vessel is invited to sail its final voyage into its metaphorical grave and the final process state is known as recycling where the vessel is broken down into recyclable materials for domestic use. The SC13 provided for regulations at each aforesaid stage. At the very fundamental stage on the shore side, the SC13 mandated the submission and procurement of Ship Recycling Facility Management Plan (SRFMP) along with a Ship Specific Recycling Plan (SSRP) to be obtained by the recycler to get permission for beaching the inbound vessel prior to the vessel entering Indian waters. 

In addition to the SRFMP and SSRP, the recycler was mandated to procure and produce prior to beaching a plan for disposal of waste as also certification of gas-free and fit-for-work. The SC13 granted the relevant authority under the code to reject such proposals and deny entry or permission to beach the vessels not fulfilling the criteria for recycling [21]. The SC13 was not only ship and recycler centric and provides for worker safety as well welfare schemes for employees. [22] The SC13 laid down stringent procedures at each stage of the demolition process, mandating certification through a Certificate of Registry incorporated under the SC13, issuance of non-encumbrance certificate, and statement of No Objections as and how directed to be procured, inter alia, other compliances. [23] These compliances would depend largely on what type of vessel was sought to be beached. 

Recycling of Ships Act, 2019 (“RSA”): With the introduction of the Recycling of Ships Act, 2019 (“RSA”), The ‘Directorate General of Shipping (“DG”) was declared as the National Authority for Recycling of Ships [24] (“NARS”). This confers the power to administrate, monitor and supervise all ship breaking and recycling activities conducted in India. The RSA aims to set certain standards, procedures and criteria for shipbreaking activities which should be fulfilled at various stages under the approval and supervision of the NARS. The NARS, if rejects any application, the ship breaking activity of that recycler or that particular vessel will be banned on the shores of India. 

RSA further imposes a mandatory duty on recyclers to ensure safe and environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous materials from ships undergoing recycling. Additionally, The Ministry of Shipping, Government of India has floated a Ship Breaking Scrap Committee (“SBSC”) chaired by Jt. Secretary (Shipping) to align various all measures for improvisation and improving the capacity of ship breaking yards across India. The RSA further recognises only ship breakers approved and licensed under the RSA as authorised ship breakers and only such authorised ship breakers are permitted to carry out the shipbreaking activities. [25] The RSA conceptually ratifies the HKC in its entirety and furthermore, provides for penalising the Ship Owner (and, if required, the Ship Recycler) for contravention of the provisions of the RSA. [26] The introduction of a legislation like the RSA is a definitive attempt by the Indian Government to create and strengthen an infrastructure to regulate, monitor and streamline the ship breaking activities in India so that the exposure and impact to the environment is reduced as well as the workers undertaking the hazardous occupation are safeguarded. 

This attempt has brought forward shipbreaking yards in Alang and Visakhapatnam to the forefront of the global stage. However, that being said the RSA does not cut the mark required all the way. Pollution levels continue to cause worry and the legislation continues to remain open ended on several counts including the worker welfare such as post-retirement healthcare and compensation to families. Furthermore, the RSA while dealing with on-site disposal of the waste and hazardous scrap materials does not regulate the activity until its very end, until its last vendor who is to collect these materials once it has been scrapped and separated from the vessel being broken down. The RSA does not capture whether there shall be governmental set up disposal entities or private entities in this regard. Furthermore, whether the entities would function as power plants or factories is also unanswered throwing in ambiguity yet again. 

The RSA seems like a minor brick being laid in the huge foundation of bridge of framework and infrastructure in the ship breaking industry which is predicted to double. [27] The discord between the EU and the US authorities and the South Asian Countries housing as many as 75% of the worlds’ ship breaking yards would eventually cause a black market for end-of-life ships. The chaos caused in the regulatory infrastructure world over has created a multi-tier marketplace for end-of-life ships where remuneration paid for unseaworthy ships vary drastically. Unregulated and unsupervised yards in countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh pay higher prices for end-of-life vessels than those in India. Recycling yards in Turkey, approved by the EU, pay much less for end-of-life ships considering the costs involved in their maintenance of the EU standardisation itself. Needless to say, that business in India has drastically taken a beating because of this. Arguably, much of these approval & recognition issues are politically oriented movements for nations to give their approval to a third world country’s ship breaking yards, but the industry in India is prepared to take on these impediments and has, in fact, made leaps towards sustaining the environment while strengthening the infrastructure as well. The near-four-decade-old, the world’s largest shipbreaking yard; Alang, today is the outcome of concentrated efforts of judicial activism, government initiatives and one above all, committed efforts of ship breakers to upgrade to international standards to win business and restart the business and emerging currently as the greenest and safest ship-breaking hub globally. [28]

Recommendations and Conclusion

The ushering of RSA in India, has brought the enforcement of the HKC closer, however, despite adoptions of the norms, the industry in India has a long-standing goal to achieve. Processes like Flags of Convenience and cash purchase of vessels for scrapping need supervision by a uniform authority that oversees Ship Breaking Activities across the world and endorses such processes only if there is a necessity for such change of flag. This necessity ought to be established before such uniform global authority and understandably carrying several tonnes of hazard will not count as a necessity. The HKC attempts to provide this however the efficacy and enforceability is questionable as there is no regulatory body beyond the International Maritime Organisation. This will protect the coastlines of the nations’ leading the Ship Breaking Activities and would in turn also make other countries more vigilant towards such pollution abuse. There is more than just philosophy in the saying everything begins from dust to end back in dust, the Ship Breaking Industry needs unfettered support from the Naval Architecture industry, Ship Building must be revolutionised to use as lesser pollution causing and hazardous substances as possible. Although there is little research available on the environmental impact of ship-building on the surrounding environment and aquatic life. Yet, ship recycling building activities also undoubtedly affect the marine environment.

Shipbuilding, shipping, and ship breaking are three absolutely distinct and separate industrial operations. However, they are inextricably interlinked activities considering the impact that ships in their life cycle have on the environment. The industry has been unforgivingly slow to embrace modern technologies for improving environmental performance. There is a growing requirement for enhancing the knowledge and information on the inventory of cost-effective and environmentally appealable alternatives compared to conventional systems, materials and processes.

The need for the updating infrastructure is constant. The war against pollution and contamination is far from won, the battle is not just with mother nature but several man-made impediments cause obstacles in steady course of business. The undeniable need of uniformity of regulations across the globe in the ship breaking industry is more imminent than ever. This uniformity in regulations will bring validation and invalidation of ship breaking yards to a conformity which all nations will abide and resolve to cater the end-of-life vessels in an environmentally safe manner, which also would form part of the uniform regulations. An attempt to constitute a body regulating international Ship Breaking to regulate export and import and compliance of various conventions would largely help towards achieving the goal of making this dangerous aspect of the maritime industry more amenable to environmental soundness. This will also help rebuke and destroy the black market of irregular scrap ship buyers and the focus, then, will shift to improving the environment, which undeniably is a concern much bigger than economy and commerce.

About the Author

Harsh B. Buch is a Senior Associate at MZM Legal LLP. 

Editorial Team

Managing Editor: Naman Anand

Editors-in-Chief: Akanksha Goel & Aakaansha Arya

Senior Editor: Jhalak Srivastav

Associate Editor: Saru Sharma

Junior Editor: Kshitij Pandey

Preferred Method of Citation

Harsh B. Buch, “Recycling of Ships: The Environment and the Efforts to Mitigate the Impact on the Environment” (IJPIEL, 10 August, 2021).



[1] The Ship Recycling Industry Must Move Towards a Sustainable Future, The Wire, (03 August 2020).

[2] Accoladed as the World’s Biggest Ship Breaking Yard, Marine Insight, (November 2, 2020) (https://www.marineinsight.com/environment/10-largest-ship-graveyards-in-the-world/).

[3] Ramesh Menon, The India today, (March 31 1984).

[4] The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), 1989, Enforced In 1992.

[5] Press Release, ILO, (26 March 2004), (www.ILO.Org.).

[6] End of Life Ships: A Human Cost of Breaking Ships, (November 2004).

[7] Id Note 7 || Art 4.2 (e) Each Party shall take the appropriate measures to not allow the export of hazardous wastes or other wastes to a State or group of States belonging to an economic and/or political integration organization that are Parties, particularly developing countries, which have prohibited by their legislation all imports, or if it has reason to believe that the wastes in question will not be managed in an environmentally sound manner.

[8] Dr. Frank Hittmann (occupational health officer of the German state of Bremen), Public statement, interview with ARD-TV, “due to the lack of safeguards in handling the various contaminants, every fourth worker in Alang must be expected to contract cancer”, (Nov. 23 1998).

[9] October 2004.

[10] The Hong Kong Convention, Article 5.

[11] The Hong Kong Convention, Article 6.

[12] The Hong Kong Convention, Regulation 4.

[13] The Hong Kong Convention, Article 8.

[14] The Hong Kong Convention, Article 10.

[15] General Secretary, IMO

[16] Ship Recycling: Towards the Early Entry into Force of the Hong Kong Convention, International Seminar, (10 May 2019).

[17] Basel Convention, Article 2.

[18] Sea trade Maritime News, (January 27, 2020).

[19] The Blue Lady Case, Order Dated 17.02.2006 In WP CIVIL 695/1995.

[20] The Blue Lady Case, Order Dated 17.02.2006 In WP CIVIL 695/1995.

[21] The Shipbreaking Code, 2013, §.2.1, 3.3.3, 4.1.4.

[22] The Shipbreaking Code, 2013, §7.16.

[23] The Shipbreaking Code, 2013, §3.3.2, 3.4, §3.6, §4.1.2, §4.3, §5.2.1.

[24] RSA, §3.

[25] RSA, §16.

[26] RSA, §34 & 35.

[27] India Aims to Double Its Shipbreaking Capacity By 2024, The Maritime Exclusive, (February 8, 2021).

[28] Business Today, (July 22, 2021).obalarbitrationreview.com/guide/the-guide-energy-arbitrations/4th-edition/article/investment-disputes-involving-the-renewable-energy-industry-under-the-energy-charter-treaty.