Ship breaking

Workers drag steel plate ashore from beached ships in Chittagong, Bangladesh

Ship-breaking or ship demolition is a type of ship disposal involving the breaking up of ships for either a source of parts, which can be sold for re-use, or for the extraction of raw materials, chiefly scrap. It may also be known as ship dismantling, ship cracking, or ship recycling. Modern ships have a lifespan of 25 to 30 years before corrosion, metal fatigue and a lack of parts render them uneconomical to operate.[1] Ship-breaking allows the materials from the ship, especially steel, to be recycled and made into new products. This lowers the demand for mined iron ore and reduces energy use in the steelmaking process. Fixtures and other equipment on board the vessels can also be reused. While ship-breaking is sustainable, there are concerns about the use of poorer countries without stringent environmental legislation. It is also labour-intensive, and considered one of the world's most dangerous industries.[2]

In 2012, roughly 1,250 ocean ships were broken down, and their average age was 26 years.[3][4] In 2013, the world total of demolished ships amounted to 29,052,000 tonnes, 92% of which were demolished in Asia. As of January 2020, India has the largest global share at 30%;[5] followed by Bangladesh, China and Pakistan.[6] Alang, India currently has the world's largest ship graveyard,[5] followed by Chittagong Ship Breaking Yard in Bangladesh and Gadani in Pakistan.[6]

The largest sources of ships are states of China, Greece and Germany respectively, although there is a greater variation in the source of carriers versus their disposal.[7] The ship-breaking yards of India, Bangladesh, China and Pakistan employ 225,000 workers as well as providing many indirect jobs. In Bangladesh, the recycled steel covers 20% of the country's needs and in India it is almost 10%.[8]

As an alternative to ship-breaking, ships may be sunk to create artificial reefs after legally-mandated removal of hazardous materials, or sunk in deep ocean waters. Storage is a viable temporary option, whether on land or afloat, though all ships will be eventually scrapped, sunk, or preserved for museums.


Wooden-hulled ships were simply set on fire or 'conveniently sunk'. In Tudor times, ships were also dismantled and the timber re-used. This procedure was no longer applicable with the advent of metal-hulled boats.[9]

In 1880, Denny Brothers of Dumbarton used forgings made from scrap maritime steel in their shipbuilding. Many other nations began to purchase British ships for scrap by the late 19th century, including Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Japan. The Italian industry started in 1892, and the Japanese after an 1896 law had been passed to subsidise native shipbuilding.[9]

After being damaged or involved in a disaster, liner operators did not want the name of the broken ship to tarnish the brand of their passenger services. The final voyage of many Victorian ships was with the final letter of their name chipped off.[9]

In the 1930s, it became cheaper to 'beach' a boat and run her ashore as opposed to using a dry dock. The ship would have to weigh as little as possible and run ashore at full speed. Dismantling operations required a 10 feet (3.0 m) rise of tide and close proximity to a steel-works. Electric shears, a wrecking ball and oxy-acetylene torches were used. The technique of the time is almost identical to that of developing countries today. Similarly, Thos W Ward Ltd., one of the largest breakers in the United Kingdom in the 1930s, would recondition and sell all furniture and machinery. Many historical artifacts were sold at public auctions: the Cunarder RMS Mauretania, sold as scrap for GB£78,000, received high bids for her fittings worldwide. However, even with obsolete technology, any weapons and military information were carefully removed.[9]

Dismantling of Redoutable in Toulon, 1912

Shifting to Asia

Until the late 20th century, the majority of ship-breaking activity took place in the port cities of industrialized countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States. Those dismantlers that still remain in the United States work primarily on government surplus vessels.

Starting in the mid-20th century, East Asian countries with lower labor costs began to dominate ship-breaking, moving as labor costs rose, initially from countries such as Japan and Hong Kong, to Korea and Taiwan and then to China. For example, the southern port city of Kaohsiung in Taiwan was the world's leading dismantling site in the late 1960s and 1970s, breaking up 220 ships totaling 1.6 million tons in 1972 alone;[10] in 1977, Taiwan continued to dominate the industry with more than half the market share, followed by Spain and Pakistan. At the time, Bangladesh had no capacity at all. However, the sector is volatile and fluctuates wildly, and Taiwan processed just 2 ships 13 years later as wages across East Asia rose.[11][12] For comparison, depending on their profession, shipbreakers in Kaohsiung earned from NT$40 (day laborer) to NT$180 (torch operator) per day in 1973.[10]

In 1960, after a severe cyclone, the Greek ship M D Alpine was stranded on the shores of Sitakunda, Chittagong. It could not be re-floated and so remained there for several years. In 1965, the then in East Pakistan, Chittagong Steel House bought the ship and had it scrapped. It took years to scrap the vessel, but the work gave birth to the industry in Bangladesh. Until 1980 the Gadani ship-breaking yard of Pakistan was the largest ship-breaking yard in the world.

Tightening environmental regulations resulted in increased costs of hazardous waste disposal in industrialised countries in the 1980s, causing ships to be exported to lower income nations, chiefly South Asia. This, in turn, created a far worse environmental problem, subsequently leading to the Basel Convention. In 2004 a Basel Convention decision officially classified old ships as “toxic waste”, preventing them from leaving a country without the permission of the importing state.[13] This has led to a resurgence of recycling in environmentally-compliant locations in developed countries, especially in former ship building yards.[14]

On 31 December 2005, the French Navy's Clemenceau left Toulon to be dismantled in Alang, India despite protests over improper disposal capabilities and facilities for the toxic wastes. On 6 January 2006 the Supreme Court of India temporarily denied access to Alang,[15] and the Conseil d'État ordered Clemenceau to return to French waters.[16] Able UK in Hartlepool received a new disassembly contract to use accepted practices in scrapping the ship.[17][18] The dismantling started on 18 November 2009 and the break-up was completed by the end of 2010, and the event was considered a turning point in the treatment of redundant vessels.[17] Europe and the United States have actually had a resurgence in ship scrapping since the 1990s.[19]

In 2009 the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association won a legal case prohibiting all substandard ship-breaking. For 14 months the industry could not import ships and thousands of jobs were lost before the ban was annulled.[20] That same year, the global recession and lower demand for goods led to an increase in the supply of ships for decommissioning. The rate of scrapping is inversely correlated to the freight price, which collapsed in 2009.[21]