Recycling of ships – what is the legal status?

When a ship has reached the end of its life, the owners are inevitably faced with the decision of how to dispose of it in a manner that is both commercially viable and environmentally sustainable. The controversial practice of beaching vessels in low cost countries has spurred initiatives to tighten regulations on the recycling of ships. In the following pages we look at the current legal framework as well as what is to come.

The Basel Convention (Con­vention­ on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal 1989) is the only internationally ­recognized legal framework currently in force concerning recycling of ships. The Basel Convention does not apply to recycling of ships as such, but regulates cross-border transportation of hazardous waste. Since many older ships contain materials and substances which are categorized as hazardous waste, the Basel Convention has a significant impact on the recycling of ships.

In respect of ship recycling, one of the most important rules in the Basel Convention, in practical terms, is the ban on the exportation of waste from developed countries to less developed countries. This rule is set out in an addendum to the Basel Convention which is not yet in force, but which has already been implemented by a ­number of signa­tories, including Norway. It is however not clear under the Basel Convention when a ship as such is to be considered as waste.

The lack of a clear and comprehensive regulation of the recycling of ships is the backdrop to the Hong Kong Convention (Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships 2009), which was the result of nine years of negotiations before finally being signed at a diplomatic conference in Hong Kong in 2009. Today, eight years later, the Hong Kong Convention has still not entered into force because of an insufficient number of ratifications. It is uncertain when it will enter into force, but when it does it will represent a significant shift towards stricter regulation.

The Hong Kong Convention covers design, construction, operation and preparation of ships for recycling as well as the operation of ship recycling facilities. The aim is to ensure that recycling is being done in a safe and environmentally sound manner. To ensure compliance the Hong Kong Convention also provides for the establishment of an enforcement mechanism, incorporating certification and reporting requirements.
Ships to be recycled will be required to carry an inventory of hazardous materials, which will be specific to each ship. They will be required to have an initial survey to verify the inventory of hazardous materials, intermediate renewal surveys and a final survey prior to recycling. Ship recycling yards will be required to provide a ship recycling plan where it will be specified in what manner the individual ship will be recycled, depending on its particulars and inventory. 

Due to the uncertainty on when the Hong Kong Convention will enter into force, the EU has enacted its own regulation, the Ship Recycling Regulation (EU) No 1257/2013 (Regulation (EU) No 1257/2013 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 November 2013 on ship recycling and amending Regulation (EC) No 1013/2006 and Directive 2009/16/EC.), which applies to ­vessels flying EU flags or calling at EU ports. The EU Ship Recycling Regulation entered into force on 30 December 2013 and is broadly in line with the rules in the Hong Kong Convention, but with the notable exception that the EU Ship Recycling Regulation explicitly prohibits the practice of beaching, stipulating that ­recycling shall only be done at “built structures”.

Ship recycling is something which the owners mainly need to consider towards the end of the ship’s life span, but given the introduction of much tighter regulations in the fore­seeable future, disposing of ships will need a greater amount of ­planning making it much harder for owners to make last minute decisions.