Tuesday, November 8, 2011


Following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 there has been increased pressure to phase out the vulnerable single-hulled ships and replace them with safer double-hulled tankers. This might seem like a good idea but the problem comes about when the old ships are broken up. A single oil tanker can contain literally tons of toxic material (eg 7000 kg of asbestos) and when these ships are broken up in developing countries, the workers have virtually no protection from toxic, and other, hazards, and the waste itself often ends up on the beach or in the ocean.

A series of articles on the international shipbreaking industry by Gary Cohn and Will Englund of The Baltimore Sun won a Pulitzer prize in 1998 and you can read the series here. The article on Alang in India is perhaps the most relevant.

The photographer Edward Burtynsky's brought this industry to many people's attention with a stunning series of Shipbreaking photographs. The one reproduced above looks like a scene from the Trojan war but these are in fact some of the world's largest ships being disassembled, largely by hand, in Chittagong.

I think the sad moral of this story is that one apparently simple change (a move to safer ships) can create a toxic nightmare in a number of poor countries.

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