The EU’s legislation allowing the export of retired and potentially toxic ships to developing countries violates national obligations and is in contradiction with the European Green Deal, NGOs said this week.

In a report published today, leading environmental organisations questioned the legal basis for the continued export of retired ships to countries like Asia and Bangladesh, where dismantling operations – often taking place in unsafe conditions – threaten people’s health and their environment.

In the report, the NGOs – represented by the Shipbreaking Platform, the Basel Action Network, the European Environmental Bureau and Greenpeace – warned that proposals are being made for the EU to enter into special bilateral agreements with shipbreaking states such as India as a supposedly legitimate means to circumvent the Basel Convention’s Ban Amendment, which entered into force globally last December.

The groups called upon the EU to take urgent action to reform both the Waste Shipment Regulation and the Ship Recycling Regulation to ensure they are legally consistent with the international Basel Convention, which bans all exports of hazardous wastes from EU countries.

“We fear that the EU is just fine with human rights, environmental treaties and a ‘green deal’ until it impacts the bottom line of powerful industrial interests,” states Ingvild Jenssen, Director of the Shipbreaking Platform.

Toxic shipwrecks

The Ban Amendment to the Basel Convention, championed early on by the EU and now enshrined in international waste law, bans hazardous wastes of all kinds from being exported from developed to developing countries. The Basel Convention has already ruled that operational ships can be considered as hazardous wastes due to the many toxins embedded within their structures. Yet, current European law allows EU-flagged vessels to be exported to any destination on an EU-approved ship recycling facility list, regardless of whether it is a developing country or not. 

Shipbreaking yard in Chittagong. Credits: Andrew Holbrooke, Corbis / EjAtlas

The report comes as the Centre for International Environmental Law (CIEL) published a new analysis explaining why the current situation is not acceptable both from a legal standpoint and as a matter of policy.

“Now that the Ban Amendment is in force, it is binding international law,” argued Jim Puckett, the executive director of the Basel Action Network (BAN) who contributed to the report. “Shipbreaking yards in developing countries, such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh can therefore not be placed on the EU’s list of approved ship recycling destinations”.

Confused policy compass

The discussions around the shipbreaking are also set to ignite the debate around Europe’s circular economy efforts in the context of the European Green Deal. “It all just seems very incoherent,” said Stéphane Arditi, Circular Economy Policy Manager at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB). He points out that EU waste law is currently being recast to “facilitate preparing for re-use and recycling of waste in the EU and restrict exports of waste that have harmful environmental and health impacts in third countries”.

“By allowing the breaking of European vessels in the Global South, Europe is […] also contradicting its own ambition to boost the domestic supply of secondary raw materials – as set out in its circular economy action plan,” adss Arditi. “EU leaders must focus on reprocessing, reusing and recycling valuable materials, particularly steel, within Europe.”

The NGOs call on the EU to seize the opportunity to boost safe and clean ship recycling in Europe, as well as to promote the design and building of toxic-free vessels and to push for ‘zero-emissions steel’ initiatives.

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