Thursday, October 29, 2009

Floating Poison: The Platinum II is only a small part of a very dirty problem

On Tuesday, we looked at the trouble with imported trash. We argued that importing recyclable stuff like paper (or even rubber gloves and condoms) is not the problem it is often made out to be. But we don’t need to import everyday trash disguised as recyclable paper; we’ve got plenty of junk filling our landfills already. And we certainly don’t need e-waste, which is full of deadly poison.

Unfortunately, India doesn’t just import shiploads of trash; we import the ships themselves, once they become trash. Shipbreaking has been in the news lately, thanks to Tehlka and others, who have reported that a toxic, and possibly damaged, ship is awaiting permission to be broken at Alang, Gujarat.

The Platinum II is an American cruise liner loaded with unusually large amounts of toxic chemicals and asbestos. Its name was changed recently, apparently to avoid scrutiny; the original owners have already run afoul of the American authorities for trying to illegally export PCP's. Even by the dirty standards of a dirty industry, this ship is a bad deal. The authorities know about it; the only question is whether they will do the needful and send this floating bucket of poison back where it belongs. In fact, This week, IBN reports that the government's "expert team" has given the ship a clean chit, though no action has been taken by the environmental ministry as of this writing.

The case of
The Platinum II looks fairly straightforward: Environmental Minister Jairam Ramesh should send it back to the US, where they have shipyards equipped to handle this kind of thing.

But what about the industry as a whole? Shipbreaking is nothing new, of course. For as long as there have been ships to scrap, people have been salvaging what they could from them. Until a few decades ago, ships were typically scrapped where they were built. In the 1970’s, Western shipyards began sending this work to Korea and Taiwan. By the 1980’s, even those countries had had enough, so the industry started coming our way.

This happened because shipbreaking is such a dirty business that almost no one is willing to do it. To take apart a ship safely often costs much more than the value of the scrap metal recovered. Currently, most shipbreaking is done right here in South Asia because Pakistan, Bangladesh and India do not strictly enforce environmental laws, and we have a supply of workers desperate enough to take apart poisonous ships with minimal equipment. (There are some amazing photos of here if you have a moment to look. Those interested in learning more can check out the NGO Platform on Shipbreaking. You can also read this Pulitzer Prize winning series from 1998 or this article, by William Langewiesche which originally appeared in the August, 2000 issue of the
Atlantic Monthly.)

Short of ending international trade (which may happen sooner than we think, but which is not the subject of this post), there is really no way to avoid doing the dirty work of taking old ships apart. We can't dump them at sea (well, actually we can, but this is extraordinarily bad for marine life.) Besides, old ships do contain a lot of metal that we need to recycle. This does does not mean shipbreakers should be free to operate in a way that unnecessarily poisons our land or our people. For one thing, the practice of driving old ships up onto the beach and cutting them apart by hand is a disaster for the environment and the people doing the work. It should be stopped.

That obvious, but a lot of people go to long lengths to explain why it is OK to poison our land and our people--and otherwise reasonable Westerners sometimes find these arguments convincing. For example, in the Atlantic Monthly article cited above, William Langewiesche quotes one shipbreaking businessman as saying, "The question I want to ask the environmentalists is if you should want to die first of starvation or pollution." This argument seems compelling at first glance, and Langewiesche gives it some credence. But at it's core, it is rotten.

Would we say yes to the heroin trade if it generated a few jobs? What about child prostitution? Industries that are poison need to be cleaned up-- or if that's not possible-- banned from our shores. It's that simple. And let's not kid ourselves; shipbreaking and trash disposal may be risky from a business point of view, but these businesses are not charities: like all businesses, their job is to make money. If they cannot make money safely from breaking ships, they need to invest their money elsewhere. That's where environmental regulation and enforcement can help companies do the right thing.

When you really get down to it, this is such a problem because of our hunger for cheap stuff. The shipping industry runs on such slim margins because world wide shipping rates are very low. Import-export companies demand this. Shipping companies need to sell their old ships for scrap to whoever will buy them, or they risk going under themselves. The poorly regulated market's solution to this has been a disaster; in the end, poor workers and our beaches subsidize cheap imports, the world over.

Some kind of international solution is required. Perhaps more regulation is the answer. Perhaps a "shipbreaking duty" should be levied on all goods shipped from one country to another, with the proceeds going to build green shipbreaking yards. We know how to do this, it's just a matter of finding the needed political will and money.

Governments hesitate to solve this problem, because a real solution would almost mean that consumers in New York, South Delhi, and everywhere in between would see the cost of our imported goods rise. That would take some getting used to, but in the end, it would encourage local production and more environmentally sustainable consumption patterns. Besides, it's the right thing to do. How can we ask working people in Gujarat to take apart ships loaded with poison so we can save a few bucks at the mall?


  1. The part that really surprised me from your lined essay - 80% of Bangladesh's steel comes from such means!

    I wonder how much it would cost to build a ship if the ship building companies had to pay for its cleanup as part of the "Pay the full cost" mantra. And like you said, these costs would get passed on to consumers. But that's only fair. Otherwise, the cost is paid for by poor people's health.

    As usual, it's a question of doing what's right vs doing what's easy. I've long known that humans are very smart individually and incredibly stupid collectively. Who's going to bell the cat here? We can forget about developed countries trying to change anything. The lobbyists would make sure the government never did anything - the only possible solution lies with us...

  2. @Bhagwad--That 80% figure really jumped at me also. I almost wrote a whole paragraph based on that number; shipbreaking is to Bangladesh as mining is to many countries.

    You are right; shipping (and transportation in general) is a big part of the equation we talk about when we say, "pay the full cost" of goods. Extraction is also important, of course. I don't see how this will change unless the Northern countries act. We are just not a big enough customer to change the world's shipping industry. The US could do it. Maybe even Walmart. But only under a great deal of pressure. Still, we need to do what we can, at the margins, as it were.

    We might see something change if South Asian countries agreed to regulate shipbreaking ourselves--that would force shippers to raise their rates, in an ideal world. But some of them have made veiled threats to just sink their ships on the high seas rather than pay to dispose of their ships properly--I've read that, but couldn't find a link to it. Short of concerted action with Bangladesh and Pakistan, we might just have to push for local regulation, which might mean losing that industry for the time being. Tough times, tough choices.

  3. Very interesting Hari...thanks for this.

  4. A bit of good news here regarding this issue:

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What do you think?