Scrapping scrap, saving earth

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Come next week/year, a decades-old marine trade practice in China will draw to a close.

The country's ship-breaking yards, which have been tearing apart the world's retired vessels from both civil and military sectors, and turning them into piles of steel scrap bound for mills for repurposing, will henceforth focus only domestic ships.

China has banned import of aged and hazardous foreign vessels because their dangerous materials can pollute environment during the ship-breaking process.

Many ship-breaking yards and nearby beaches were heavily polluted by heavy metals, oil and other toxic substances in recent history. Pollution spread beyond the yards too.

The new measures were announced in April and will take effect on Dec 31. They cover 32 types of solid waste imports, including ships, auto parts, waste, stainless steel scrap, titanium and wood.

Even though China has made it clear it will no longer receive international vessels for ship recycling on its land, many countries have criticized China's move to protect both its environment in coastal areas and public health, said Xie Dehua, president of the Beijing-based China National Ship Recycling Association.

"China's rejection will only push the global waste recycling technologies to make breakthroughs," he said. "Yet, for some countries that habitually export solid rubbish to China, it is hard to accept this reality."

In the first half of 2018, China dismantled or scrapped 320,000 deadweight tons or DWT of 18 ships, including container vessels and liquefied gas carriers, the association reported.

The first-half DWT figure was down around 70 percent year-on-year. The country's imports of vessels for scrapping also declined by 70 percent.

China's ship-recycling facilities are mainly located in Guangdong province in the south, and Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Shandong provinces in the east. Collectively, they employ around 110,000 workers.

For long, China's ship-breaking industry has supplied raw materials to infrastructure projects in a number of sectors like hydropower, housing, bridge and railway construction, particularly in developing countries. The process starts when scrap-yard owners buy ships from owners.

Ship-recycling yards in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan account for around 80 percent of the global ship-breaking and recycling market, which covers oil tankers, bulk and container ships. China and Turkey account for 15 percent.

About 800 large ships are sold for scrap in Asia each year, according to NGO Shipbreaking Platform, a Brussels-based coalition of environmental, human and labor rights groups.

The group found that only about 5 percent of the annual global shipbreaking volume is from countries other than the five. Germany, Singapore, Greece and South Korea send more ships to Asian beaches for scrapping than other countries. Their ships continued to cause environmental damage in host countries in 2017.

Compared with China, where ships are broken in docks with cranes and machinery, other major ship-breaking countries such as Turkey, India and Bangladesh still rely on manual methods and outdated equipment. Many scrap-bound vessels are still dismantled on beaches.

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