May 1, 2014

BREAKING BAD?:

The Ship-Breakers : In Bangladesh men desperate for work perform one of the world's most dangerous jobs. (Peter Gwin, May 2014, National Geographic)

Oceangoing vessels are not meant to be taken apart. They're designed to withstand extreme forces in some of the planet's most difficult environments, and they're often constructed with toxic materials, such as asbestos and lead. When ships are scrapped in the developed world, the process is more strictly regulated and expensive, so the bulk of the world's shipbreaking is done in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, where labor is cheap and oversight is minimal.

Industry reforms have come in fits and starts. India now requires more protections for workers and the environment. But in Bangladesh, where 194 ships were dismantled in 2013, the industry remains extremely dirty and dangerous.

It also remains highly lucrative. Activists in Chittagong told me that in three to four months the average ship in Bangladeshi yards returns roughly a one-million-dollar profit on an investment of five million, compared with less than $200,000 profit in Pakistan. I called Jafar Alam, former head of the Bangladesh Ship Breakers Association. He denied that profit margins were that high. "It varies by ship and depends on many factors, such as the current price of steel," he said.

Whatever the actual profits, they are realized by doggedly recycling more than 90 percent of each ship. The process begins after a ship-breaker acquires a vessel from an international broker who deals in outdated ships. A captain who specializes in beaching large craft is hired to deliver it to the breaker's yard, generally a sliver of beach barely a hundred yards wide.

Once the ship is mired in the mud, its liquids are siphoned out, including any remaining diesel fuel, engine oil, and firefighting chemicals, which are resold. Then the machinery and fittings are stripped. Everything is removed and sold to salvage dealers--from enormous engines, batteries, generators, and miles of copper wiring to the crew bunks, portholes, lifeboats, and electronic dials on the bridge.

After the ship has been reduced to a steel hulk, swarms of laborers from the poorest parts of Bangladesh use acetylene torches to slice the carcass into pieces. These are hauled off the beach by teams of loaders, then melted down and rolled into rebar for use in construction.

Posted by at May 1, 2014 7:09 PM
  

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