Recycling: if it works for cars, why not ships?

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Docked transport ship

Old car tyres are turned into rubber tiles found under children’s swings, and the fibres of your discarded shelf might be transformed tomorrow into wall insulation. As far as recycling is concerned, the Dutch automotive industry is miles ahead of the international shipping sector, a fact that became abundantly clear to me when I recently joined the CSR Netherlands maritime cluster on a visit to the country’s largest car recycling company.

In closed-loop shipbuilding, a hulk isn’t scrap metal waiting to happen, but a valuable store of precious basic and raw materials that can be used over and over again. Jan Raes Jan Raes Sustainability advisor

Sustainable ship breaking in the spotlight

Auto Recycling Nederland (ARN) has an impressive track record in the recycling industry. The process of dismantling ships weighing 10,000 tons or more and reusing all their component parts still poses many social challenges to the shipping sector. CSR Netherlands is raising awareness of this very issue at SAIL Amsterdam, the world’s largest free nautical event. Starting on Wednesday, 19 August, children and their parents can have a go at demolishing old boats at the pop-up scrapyard at Green Ocean on the NDSM wharf. ABN AMRO is a partner of CSR Netherlands.

Car recycling industry sets good example

The days when end-of-life cars were destined solely for the scrapyard are well and truly over. Despite no longer being fit for purpose, these cars are actually a valuable source of raw materials that are at a premium in today’s world. The Dutch recycling company ARN has been involved in this undertaking for years, and thanks to the extensive research it has carried out, the firm has managed to breathe a second, useful life into no less than 95 per cent of the materials making up these old bangers. The company soon plans to raise the rate to 97 per cent of the entire weight of a given car. Apart from a small amount of residual material, they recycle the entire vehicle into reusable plastics, metals and textiles.

With its ambitious goals, ARN perfectly embodies the concept of the circular economy. People and the planet are at the core of all the company’s operations. From dismantling vehicles to painstakingly recording which parts and materials can be reused, ARN has completely automated its recovery process, overseen from a single, central cockpit. Throughout the dismantling process, staff have little if any contact with pollutants or toxic substances. By partnering with collectors and a network of certified businesses specialising in car dismantling, shredding and recycling, ARN ensures that not a single reusable raw material winds up on a Dutch rubbish dump.

The shipping sector has some catching up to do

International ship recycling could certainly learn a thing or two from the Dutch car recycling industry. End-of-life ships are still run ashore at high tide to undergo dismantling on beaches in developing countries. And there certainly isn’t any machinery waiting there to break down these hulks in an environmentally friendly way – all the dirty work is left to local manual labourers. What’s more, few if any measures to monitor safety or compliance have been implemented, and there’s often a complete lack of awareness of such issues among employees.

The situation is bad for both workers and the environment. In tidal areas, toxic waste and raw materials often leak into the water, eventually finding their way into the open sea, where they do terrible ecological damage. Good equipment, concrete flooring and shredders, as used in the automotive industry, could help prevent all this. Accordingly, materials could be collected from these ships in a safe and environmentally friendly way, so that they are repurposed while retaining their industrial-grade quality – all without jeopardising workers’ health or safety.

Gradual push to close the loop in the shipping industry

While the dismantling and demolition process often continues to be fraught with danger, some scrapyards do already comply with the regulations set out by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in its International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships, drafted in Hong Kong in 2009. The convention states that no unnecessary risks to public health, safety or the environment may be taken when ships are recycled, additionally providing regulations and legislation to which builders, users and reusers of ships must adhere. Once the convention has been ratified throughout the world, ship recycling will be well on its way to becoming a green industry.

With environmentally friendly ship recycling in sight, human safety and the operational efficiency of ships will no longer be at risk. Certified recycling shipyards in Europe, China and Turkey are already operating at full speed, and the first scrapyards in such countries as India and Bangladesh are setting a good example. Indian shipyards like Leela, Priya Blue, RL Kalthia and Shree Ram are now taking steps so that they can eventually carry out dismantling operations in accordance with the Hong Kong convention.

Sustainable Shipping Initiative means a greener sector

In addition to taking part in the CSR Netherlands maritime cluster, ABN AMRO is a co-founder of the Sustainable Shipping Initiative (SSI), an ambitious coalition developing initiatives to make the shipping sector greener. From the beginning, SSI members have focused on closing the loop on raw materials recovered from ships and ensuring that human rights are respected, protected and promoted. Also of importance is building more efficient ships, so that as many raw materials as possible can be reused. As part of the SSI, sector stakeholders came together in early 2015 to

  • share knowledge about the shipping industry,
  • identify new trends involving materials and other aspects in shipping and
  • experiment with other options provided by closed-loop materials.

Closed-loop shipbuilding offers new opportunities

The shipping industry is sure to undergo major changes if it embraces the circular economy model. A hulk won’t just be scrap metal waiting to happen, but a valuable store of precious basic and raw materials that can be used over and over again. The hazardous materials on board every ship will have to be documented in detail, with a corresponding recycling plan allowing the ship to be reduced once more to its primary raw materials. The more effectively a ship is designed and built with recycling in mind, the more it will be worth at the end of its life cycle. Steel, for example, has a high residual value and can be reused as a high-quality construction material.

ABN AMRO advocates sustainable shipping

More and more businesses are committed to eradicating ship demolition on beaches and are formulating best practices and policies to support responsible recycling. A recent letter from the Clean Shipping Index states that eleven multinationals have asked their shipping companies to create better social and ecological conditions for ship recycling. The bank encourages its clients and the shipping industry at large to adopt this closed-loop model. The sector still has a long way to go, and the transition will require a lot of time and money. Nevertheless, we believe that closed-loop principles are the answer to this particular sustainability issue. After all, if it works for cars, why not ships?


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