Ship Breaking in Bangladesh – Difficulties of Industrializing Countries Implementing EIA

Prior to viewing the exhibit ‘OIL’ by Edward Burtynsky at the McCord museum, I had never heard of the Ship Breaking and Recycling Industry (SBRI), the devastating social and environmental effects it produced or the difficulties of a state implementing EIA when there are numerous other equally as important demands placed on it.

The SBRI involves the demolishing of ships after they are no longer deemed fit to sail and the re-purpose of those materials into the local economy. The SBRI dominates in industrializing nations dependent on the steel cut from the ships while the engines, motors and even wood and furniture are re-purposed and sold, the latter often along the roadside to be used as household furniture. The majority (70-80 %) of the SBRI market is situated in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, with 15-20 % in China and Turkey and 5% distributed throughout the world including Western Europe and the United States. While EIAs are conducted in the US and Western Europe and the industry is held to high environmental and labour standards, those dominating the market, particularly Bangladesh, are not. While EIAs are mentioned in the Bangladesh Environment Conservation Act of 1995, I have not been able to find if ship breaking in Bangladesh requires an EIA (BECA, 1995). EIAs as part of a World Bank report on the SBRI indicate that asbestos, ozone depleting substances, cadmium, chromium, lead, oil and mercury, plus other hazardous materials leached into the soil or released into the atmosphere, are just some of the dangerous environmental effects of ship dismantling (Sarraf et al., 2010). There are also direct social and health ramifications of the industry, which Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee describes as ‘hell on earth’ (2009). Hundreds of thousands of some of Bangladesh’s poorest, particularly youth, work with little to no safety gear under the threat of injury and death. While the conditions are far from ideal, it is estimated that approximately half a million people in Bangladesh alone are supported through by SBRI workers (Sarraf et al., 2010).

The three main instruments applied either directly to the SBRI or the many sectors comprising it are the International Labor Organization, the Basel Convention on the control of transboundary movement of hazardous wastes and the International Maritime Organization. The Hong Kong Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships was established in 2009 to incorporate the technical guidelines of all three to decrease overlap of the guidelines and to increase efficiency. The full implementation of the Hong Kong Convention is expected to be adopted in 2015.While the Convention outlines multiple guidelines and restrictions to improve the industry, particularly in the environmental, health and labour sectors, and applies to all ships and recycling facilities ‘under the jurisdiction of a party,’ there are no real enforcement measures. Not only can a ship easily change its flag in the open sea where ships are easily and often bought and sold, but the applicability of the various conventions and standards are also dependent on national policy (Sarraf et al., 2010). As the Bangladesh government only officially recognized the SBRI in early 2011, they were exempt from any policies directly targeting the industry. While the government took an “eco-friendly” stance in February 2011 and not only formally recognised the SBRI but enforced strict policy through the courts, such as requiring ships entering Bangladeshi waters to provide a ‘green passport’ (recognition of ship decontamination), these new initiatives only lasted for a month. Due to pressure from the steel industry this policy is no longer enforced as the ban brought the industry to an essential stand-still in Bangladesh and is estimated to have cost the industry $4.3million per day (Carr, 2011).

I think this case exemplifies the difficulties in many industrializing nations to implement environmental and social policy when governments have multiple priorities and little institutional support, funding, data and expertise (Wood, 2003). While the local trade union from the formal sector has begun to work with the ship-breakers, critics have said this is not financially sustainable or enough to bring about real political change. I think all the conventions and policies in the world can be written, but until the private sector is made responsible for their actions or felt an economic blow, nothing will change.


Carr, C. (2011). Shipbreakers: One of the Informal Sector’s Most Hazardous Jobs. Searchlight South Asia. Retrieved from

Kernaghan, C. (2009). Ship Breaking in Bangladesh. National Labor Committee. Retrieved from

Sarraf, M., Stuer-Lauridsen, F., Dyoulgerov, M., Bloch, R., Wingfield, S., & Watkinson, R. (2010). Ship Breaking and Recycling Industry in Bangladesh and Pakistan. World Bank. Retrieved from

The Bangladesh Environment Conservation Act, 1995. Retrieved from

Wood, C. (2003). Environmental Impact Assessment in Developing Countries: An Overview. Conference on New Directions in Impact Assessment for Development. Retrieved from


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