The Hong Kong Convention on ship recycling five years on


On 15 May 2014, The Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships (HKC) enjoyed its fifth anniversary of adoption by the IMO, and it is still on the shelf.

At the time of its adoption, some speculated that it might take three, four or even five years to push through the convention. Now, at the long end of that estimate, the convention has since been ratified by just one of the 15 shipowning and ship scrapping nations it needs to trigger the 24-month timer before it enters into force. The solitary country to ratify is Norway, which it did in June 2013.

It might come as a surprise then that of the 1,213 large ocean going ships sent to the beaches of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, 238 were beneficially owned by European companies and five of those by Norwegian companies.

Few will be surprised to learn the Greeks top the list with 84 ships, but generally green Germany comes in second with 67 vessels. We are not talking bit-players sweeping rustbuckets under the rug either, industry-leading listed companies with bold corporate social responsibility statements still find their ships running aground on beaches where oxyacetylene cutters await. A recent report by the NGO Shipbreaking Platform said 15 workers had died in South Asian shipbreaking yards this year.

As well as the obvious commercial benefits, a look at the state of regulation within the industry offers some insight into how what many consider one of shipping’s most shameful activities it manages to continue.

After HKC was adopted in May 2009 it become apparent that not only was the international community not about to ratify it, but the convention itself might offer less protection than the existing Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal (Basel).

Beaching is noted as a method of recycling within HKC guidelines, although the practicalities of chopping up steel behemoths on beaches with large tides renders it impossible to abide by the convention’s environmental and saftey rules.

Concise rules on ship cleaning ahead of recycling are not to be found within the convention and its reporting systems trail behind those of Basel.

Predicting that the HKC would not come into force before 2020, The European Union took steps to address ship scrapping by introducing its own legislation in late 2013 to speed up adoption of HKC and improve on it. The rules build on HKC, adding a list of approved recycling facilities for ships flying EU flags, adding to the list of prohibited materials for newbuildings and introducing an attempt to tackle cash buyers by imposing penalties on previous owners if a ship ends up in the wrong facility.

Not only are the European rules easy to sidestep by re-flagging the vessel to a non-EU flag, the legislation is under heavy fire for itself being illegal as it contradicts areas of Basel which are already of EU law.

Away from being seen by some as a regulatory backwards step and clearly uninspiring to IMO members, there has at last been some progress for HKC.

Within the EU the HKC has seen a number of outbursts of support and even the Council of the European Union has strongly encouraged that member states ratify it, but on 14 April 2014, four years and 11 months after the adoption of the HKC, the EU ruled in Luxembourg that “Member States are hereby authorised to ratify or accede to, for the parts falling under the exclusive competence of the Union, the Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships, 2009.”

Perhaps standard procedure, or perhaps as a sign of confidence in the glacial-paced convention, the European Council will review the ratification’s progress “by 2018.”

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