What Is Ship Breaking?

Video highlights from Salvage Code Red

We uncover more about modern-day ship breaking and find out how the dangerous work is actually done.

Shipbreaking is big business, but it's deadly too. We uncover more about modern-day ship breaking and find out how the dangerous work is actually done

Emergency marine salvage, as documented on Salvage Code Red, may well be one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, but the danger doesn’t end once a ship has been saved. If a ship cannot be repaired after a major incident, it is often sold for scrap. We uncover more about modern-day ship breaking and how it’s actually done.

What is Ship Breaking?

Ship breaking is the process of dismantling ships and selling their parts - primarily the steel - for scrap. It is estimated that between 200 and 600 large, end-of-life ships are broken up and recycled every year worldwide.

The main impetus for breaking a ship down is that maintenance costs go up as a ship ages. Shipping companies also have to pay port charges, crew salaries and oil fees for their ships, so when they are no longer economically viable they are sold to ship recyclers who strip the old ships down, salvaging anything of value.

It is big business globally, particularly in the developing world.

Dismantling a ship and recycling its parts is a very labour intensive process that involves a wide range of activities, from removing all the equipment and items left on a ship, such as engine parts and fittings, to cutting down and recycling the entire ship’s infrastructure.

Where in the World is Ship Breaking Done?

Due to cheaper labour costs and because there are fewer health and safety regulations that have to be followed, the developing world hosts the vast majority of ship breaking efforts. However, in the US, it is government policy that all US Navy vessels be broken down on US soil. In America alone there are more than 130 old ships, or ghost ships, waiting to be broken down.

The four largest ship breaking nations in the world are India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and China. These four countries handle an estimated 85 percent of the world’s ship recycling by weight.

India is a major destination for ship recycling. Alang, on the west coast of India, north of Mumbai, is the world's largest ship breaking yard. Its unique location and features make it ideal for ship breaking because its shipyard has a high tidal range, a 15-degree slope and a mud-free coast, making it easy for any ship, regardless of size, to beach with ease during high tide. These features, combined with the easy availability of cheap labour, mean that Alang is a thriving ship recycling yard, recycling more than 100 ships each year.

How Dangerous is Ship Breaking?

Ship breaking is a very dangerous activity involving numerous risks, many of which could be avoided if simple health and safety policies were implemented. Thus, ship recycling is only really economically viable in countries where wages are low and there is less regard for safety in the workplace.

Among the dangers ship breakers face are harmful substances. These substances include asbestos, lead, mercury, Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), radiation and low levels of radium, among others.

Workers are also constantly at risk from accidents caused by falling material, fires, electric shocks and fumes.

There is also the risk of workers falling from great heights..

To make matters worse, typical ship breaking activity takes place in 40°C heat on beaches without personal protective devices or equipment; if something does go wrong, workers have little or no protection. Another potential hazard, and a cause of many accidents, is the fact that many yards re-use ropes and chains from ships without inspecting them for suitability. Additionally, testing of equipment such as cranes and lifting gear is far more relaxed, or non-existent, as compared to more developed countries.

Is Ship Breaking Big Business?

Ship breaking is becoming increasingly important economically. In the developing world, ship breaking not only employs thousands of people in breaking down a ship, but the material produced is important to other industries, such as re-rolling steel plants.

Because of the increase in international trade and global shipping, ship recycling is on the rise. Most ships have a life expectancy of just 25 to 30 years, at which point many ships are scrapped. Shipping experts predict that every year, four percent of the world’s 89,000-strong shipping fleet should be scrapped or recycled. It is predicted that by 2010, 24 million tonnes – 4,000 ships - should be scrapped annually. This is unlikely to happen as currently less than 600 ships are estimated to be dismantled each year.

Discuss this article


Never miss a Nat Geo moment

Your email address
We use our own and third-party cookies to improve our services, personalise your advertising and remember your preferences. If you continue browsing, or click on the accept button on this banner, we understand that you accept the use of cookies on our website. For more information visit our Cookies Policy AcceptClose cookie policy overlay