A giant ship abandoned off the coast of Brazil poses a severe environmental hazard and illustrates the enormous recycling problem of how to safely and sustainably recycle large ships.
The ship, embroiled in an international environmental dispute, is a retired Brazilian navy vessel named the Sao Paulo. It has been floating off the coast of Brazil for almost five months. The Sao Paulo is a roughly 30-year-old decommissioned aircraft carrier and has been the largest ship in the Brazilian Navy. Unfortunately, it is also packed with asbestos. In 2021, a Turkish company named Sok Denizcilik bought the Sao Paulo for about 1.8 million dollars. It planned to recycle the ship and profit from the many tons of valuable metals reclaimed after disposing of the ship’s toxic waste.
After a tugboat began to tow the Sao Paulo across the Atlantic in August, environmental groups in Turkey protested the plan. They claimed that the Sao Paulo contained significantly more toxins, including asbestos, than disclosed in the original inventory of hazardous materials and posed a high risk to the country’s marine environment. The environmental groups prevailed, and Turkish officials canceled the Sao Paulo’s import permission. Once it neared Gibraltar, the Sao Paulo and tug had to turn back and return to Brazil.
As the ship approached Brazil after crossing back over the Atlantic, the Brazilian Navy ordered it not to return to its port of departure in Rio de Janeiro but instead remain off the northeastern coast. The environmental campaign had been successful, and no port in Brazil would now accept the ship. So the Sao Paulo and the tug pulling it were left to circle in the ocean. Months passed, the ship’s hull was becoming damaged, and the tug pulling the vessel used 20 tons of fuel daily. Brazilian officials concluded that the Sao Paulo is creating a navigational hazard, so it has been ordered 200 miles offshore, where the current plan is to officially sink the ship, according to reports this month in the New York Times.
Problems Recycling Large Ships
Although the plight of the Sao Paulo is high-profile, it is not unique. How to recycle large ships that may carry hazardous waste has been a persistent environmental question for the last several decades. Sound recycling of ships would appear to make economic and environmental sense. Such a vessel is built using tons of steel, iron, aluminum, and other valuable metals that can be recycled. New products can be fabricated with this recycled metal instead of virgin metal made with newly mined ore. The process, called shipbreaking, provides work for people in developing countries and provides material for them that is highly valued in their economies. The problem is that ship disposal can pose health and safety threats to laborers and the environment.
Addressing the Giant Recycling Problem
Recognizing the complications surrounding this issue, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has attempted to address them with an international agreement called the Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships, known as the Hong Kong Convention. The Convention was drafted at a diplomatic conference in Hong Kong, China, in 2009 and was attended by delegations from 63 countries. The Convention’s goal is to ensure that recycled ships do not pose unnecessary risks to human health, safety, and the environment. The Convention recognized that ships sold for scrapping might contain hazardous substances like asbestos, heavy metals, and ozone-depleting substances. It also addresses the working conditions at many of the world’s ship-breaking locations.
The COVID-19 pandemic pushed this issue to the forefront and highlighted the economic significance of recycling under-utilized ships. After the pandemic struck, cruise ships were not allowed to sail for several months, and cruise lines had no choice but to sell a significant number of vessels for scrap. Other businesses hit by the pandemic turned some of their ships, like car-carrying vessels and iron-ore haulers, into cash. According to the Wall Street Journal, vessel operators can, on average, recoup about 20 percent of the original purchase price of a 25-year-old ship by selling it to a recycling company. The U.K.-based maritime data provider, VesselsValue, documented this trend as reported in the New York Times. More than 22 ore carriers were scrapped in 2020, compared to 12 in 2019 and 2 in 2018.
Major shipbreaking yards today are in Turkey, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, where labor costs are lower, and there are fewer environmental laws. In the United States, however, some scrap metal recyclers have a long history of recycling marine vessels, whether barges, Navy ships, or recreational boats. Shipbreaking as an industry soared after World War I and II when hundreds of damaged or obsolete warships were sold for scrap. Although less in demand than other scrap metal recycling opportunities for automotive or industrial scrap, the business continues to prosper.
Solving the ship recycling problem.
Today, U.S. scrap metal recycling facilities near the coasts or around the Great Lakes handle ship recycling with careful attention to environmental impact and implement numerous safety and environmental practices in the process. For instance, if they are scrapped, decommissioned naval ships must be handled by a U.S. facility that follows safety, health, and environmental regulations. Recycling marine scrap metal in this manner is essential because, like all scrap metal recycling, it helps reduce manufacturing costs, preserves natural resources, and helps the environment. In the meantime, however, it joins a long list of other industries recognizing the value of recycling obsolete inventory through scrap metal recycling.
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