More than 95% of a typical vessel can be reused or recycled, making this a key aspect of sustainable fleet management.  

There are several methods to recycle a vessel, each offering different levels of environmental impact and regulatory compliance. Here’s four things you need to know about vessel recycling: 

1. When and why are vessels recycled?

Most ocean-bound vessels have an average expected lifespan of 20-30 years, but they can be sent for recycling at various points in their lifecycle. 

In most cases it’s simply due to their age, but sometimes poor market conditions can end a vessel’s active life earlier than planned.

This happened during the container slump a few years ago when excess supply caused many older container ships to be pulled from service much earlier than expected.

It’s also possible that new regulations will outdate a vessel. For a vessel already approaching its later years, it may not be economically viable to retrofit new technologies to bring it up to standard.

2. These are the methods

Mostly seen in South Asia, beaching is when shipbreaking is carried out on sandy or muddy beaches. The method needs a lot of manual labour and it presents great risks to those involved, due to the lack of heavy lifting equipment, exposure to toxic substances and the inability of emergency services to reach the vessel. 

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As a way of responsible ship recycling, there are two preferred options in terms of safety and reducing the environmental risk. Dry-dock facilities capture any toxic waste from a vessel and dispose of it without the risk of it flowing into waterways. Craned berth is a method whereby a vessel is tied up alongside a jetty. 

With  green methods, the vessel is cleaned and loosened before a crane safely lifts sections of steel ashore for further processing.

3. Don’t just rely on reports

The concept of ‘cradle to grave responsibility’ is a way for a responsible vessel owner to assess the environmental and safety impacts across the complete lifecycle.

Captain Filip Svensson, VP Marine Operations of Wallenius Wilhelmsen, explains that the responsibility shouldn’t end when the ship is sent to a yard. “Whenever we recycle a vessel, we inspect the facility in advance to review the HSE processes, protective clothing and safety gear, and the working conditions for employees.”

“During the breakdown process, we don’t just rely on reports. Our team ensures any hazardous material is disposed of in an environmentally-friendly way and has the power to stop the work if they see something potentially dangerous.” 

4. Knowing the regulations 

The 1989 Basel Convention was designed to reduce the movement of hazardous waste from developed to less developed countries. At the time of writing, 185 states and the European Union are parties to the Convention. Although the United States is a signatory, it has not yet ratified the Convention. 

The Convention also intends to minimize the amount of toxic waste generated, and to ensure what is generated can be managed as close to the source as possible. There are rigid requirements related to the movement of hazardous waste across national boundaries. 

The Hong Kong International Convention was adopted by the IMO in May 2009. The convention addresses the fact that ships sold for scrap may contain hazardous substances including asbestos, heavy metals, hydrocarbons and others. The main obligations for ship owners will be: 

  • An initial survey to produce the Inventory of Hazardous Materials (IHM), which must be kept on-board 
  • The creation of a ship-specific recycling plan 
  • Recycling must take place at an authorised facility 

The convention is pending ratification from governments around the world, so it is not yet in force. Despite this, the European Union has implemented the regulations early. This is a challenge, as the yards and facilities currently on the EU’s ‘whitelist’ are not enough to meet demand.