All hands on deck for safe ship recycling

Written by: Chris Green | Published:
EMR Group regional manager Chris Green

Ship recycling, when done safely and responsibly, is a complex and skilled operation that allows the valuable metal on board a vessel to be recovered in an environmentally responsible way.

However, the sad reality is that rather than being taken to contained, specialist scrapping facilities, a large proportion of the world’s ships end up being broken down under rudimentary conditions on beaches, leaking oil and toxic materials into the sea. Adding to the negative perceptions of the industry are horror stories about poor worker conditions, resulting in ship recycling gaining a reputation as one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.

Rather than considering the safest and most resourceful way to deal with a vessel at the end of her life, some ship owners choose the cheapest and easiest option, undermining the investments that have been made in state-of-the-art facilities across the world to deal with the high volumes of ships that require dismantling each year.

So what can be done to find a more responsible way forward for ship recycling?

A global challenge

In 2013, the EU introduced the Ship Recycling Regulation (SRR) to effectively ban shipbreaking on beaches. It requires vessels sailing under a Member State’s flag to be recycled at an EU-approved facility that meets the standards for safe and sustainable recycling. However, there is a major loophole in the legislation – international maritime law enables ship owners to swap their ship’s country flag for an alternative country outside the EU (often via a quick cash transaction). The result is the continued ‘beaching’ of ships in unregulated waters and facilities.

The recent commitment from a group of banks in the Netherlands to produce Responsible Ship Recycling Standards (RSRS) for ship financing represents a positive step forward in efforts to improve standards in the industry. The aim of the initiative is to promote responsible ship recycling to minimise the dangers associated with the hazardous materials on board ships. If it gets enough buy-in, it will open up an important dialogue between banks involved in ship financing and the ship owners.

Stretching across the seas, the global nature of the marine industry means collaboration across governments, ship owners, maritime agencies and the recycling industry will be key to successfully reversing the current issues around safe and environmentally responsible shipbreaking.

Prepare and protect

One of the priorities for the ship recycling industry is to raise awareness around the complexities and challenges involved in recycling ships responsibly. Of course, the timescales and steps involved in the process depend on the size and age of the vessel, but here I’ve outlined the stages that we follow at EMR’s ship recycling facilities to recycle a US Navy aircraft carrier.

Preparation is vital – even before submitting a bid to recycle a ship, a lot of work goes into assessing the vessel to create a bespoke recycling plan. This involves close inspection of the vessel, carrying out a series of tests to assess the materials on board and identifying any hazardous elements.

The year in which a ship was built can tell you a lot about what kind of materials might be present. For example, ships built before the 1980s often require specialist treatment from trained professionals to extract substances including asbestos, mercury and PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl). Once this background research and preparation is complete, the recycling bid is submitted to the government agency or owner of the ship.

If the bid is successful, further sampling is carried out to complete the environmental assessment when the ship arrives at the recycling facility. At this stage, specialists are brought in to conduct a complete safety assessment of the ship, including gas testing and certification of the work areas “Safe for Shipbreaking”. Specialist HAZMAT teams wearing appropriate PPE remove hazardous materials, fire hazards and cold cut/break and drain all pipes/equipment containing fuel. Before hot work can commence in any area on-board the ship, each section is individually assessed and awarded a permit once declared safe.

The ship-cutting process can only begin once all the assessments have been carried out and any hazardous substances extracted.

The ship is then broken down in layers, from top to bottom, using what is commonly called the “stair step” method. Large sections, most weighing 10-20MT, are cut off and lifted by crane to processing areas along the bank. Teams of burners then use fuel gas/oxygen torches to cut these sections into smaller units for sale to mills or foundries. But imagine doing this in the searing heat of Southern Texas. EMR has invested in a supplied breathing air system for these employees that not only protects them from respiratory hazards, but incorporates a special air-conditioning unit to keep them cool and reduce heat stress while working.

The first area of an aircraft carrier to be recycled is the island or bridge. Next comes the flight deck – this is made of high-nickel-content steel called armour plate. Cutting this speciality metal requires particular skill and the deck alone can take six months. Once the deck has been removed, it is then clear to see the warren of rooms and sections that lie within the carrier – each level is then removed section by section.

One of the biggest challenges involved in the ship recycling process is that, until cutting begins, it’s difficult to identify where the weight is held in the ship. This means that when materials are removed from one side of the ship, equal amounts must be removed from the other side too in order to avoid any imbalance that could compromise the integrity of the structure.

Once the bulk of the ship has gone, she is moved onto a special concrete cutting ramp by winch. More of the structure is cut and then she is winched in further and cut again. This process is repeated until the very last piece has been removed.

Throughout this whole process, the metals are separated and loaded straight onto trucks for shipping. Nearly all the materials that are extracted during the shipbreaking process are reused, and there are examples of metals being used for new Navy machinery and military helicopters, demonstrating how the responsible recycling of ships helps to create reusable resources.

A proven track record

The Navy is one of our most important customers and valued partnerships through which we have had the opportunity to deal with some very impressive vessels, including the USS Ranger and USS Constellation. A naval representative joins us on site to ensure that the recycling work follows the highest safety and environmental standards possible.

A recent example of these vessels is the 60,000-ton USS Independence, the last of the Forrestal-class of ‘supercarriers’, which arrived at our specialist facility in Brownsville, Texas in June. Having undergone extensive environmental and safety tests, the cutting process began at the end of July and we are progressing rapidly with the dismantling of this impressive ship. Vessels like the USS Independence have an immense history attached to them and it has been an honour for us to meet with veterans who served many years on the ship. We get lots of requests for souvenirs and we always try to accommodate them where we can, be it a door plate or other object with special meaning to them.

We also recently towed the fifth vessel from a fleet of six US Navy vessels, the USS Thomas S. Gates, into our facility in New Orleans. Her notable service includes conducting operations in the Maritime Intercept Force and acting as the flagship for NATO’s Standing Naval Forces Atlantic, the world’s first permanent peacetime multinational naval squadron. The sizeable ship is 567 feet long and 55 feet wide, and will take approximately seven to eight months to scrap.

With the recent devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey in the Texas region, we had to prepare our facilities for the worst. Luckily, our facility was unaffected, but we took extensive measures to ensure the USS Independence and other vessels moored at our facility were secure and ready to endure any extreme weather.

Putting health and safety first

A strong safety culture is critical for the safe recycling of ships. At EMR, we carry out daily safety training for all workers and have introduced several ‘green’ measures to reduce the amount of time dangerous substances are kept on site and carefully track the movement of materials throughout the process.

Our people are our greatest asset and we have a team of really hardworking people who put safety first. We offer our workforce good pay, benefits, a safe environment to work in and first-rate equipment to allow them to do their job efficiently.

A safer future for ship recycling

The world’s fleet of ships is made up of around 90,000 vessels so, if we’re going to deal with these ships responsibly when they reach the end of their life, the pressure is on for the industry to work together to address current challenges.

We, along with others in the industry, have invested in our facilities and workforce to set an example and build the reputation of ship recycling sites as safe, efficient and environmentally sound. However, if some ship owners continue to send their ships to unapproved facilities, these investments will go to waste and we will miss an opportunity to create valuable resource in an environmentally responsible manner.

We must act now to prepare the industry for a more sustainable future for ship recycling. There needs to be greater transparency over what happens to a ship at the end of its life and the recycling process that is used. Looking at ways to encourage ship owners to recycle their ships responsibly will also go a long way to preventing ships from ending up being broken down on beaches.

Chris Green is regional manager at EMR Group

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