A recent study has examined how ships no longer economical to run are broken apart, reassembled and made into goods of new value, such as furniture, in Bangladesh. There are strong concerns about working conditions for those who work in this industry and ship breaking yards have recently been closed as they are considered hazardous. However, this study draws a valuable lesson from ship breaking in that 'things are but temporary configurations of material', which can, potentially, be endlessly reassembled, under safe conditions.
When end of life ships are bought for demolition, their value lies in the weight of the different materials, especially the thousands of tons of scrap steel. End of life ships are predominantly sent to Bangladesh, India, China and Pakistan for ship breaking and demolition.
The focus of this study was on the scrapping of ships, mainly oil tankers and bulk carriers, at Sitakunda beach on the Bangladesh coast. In addition, the study followed the market for the residual furniture components of the ships. It is a large but controversial industry. Whilst ship breaking encourages sustainable use of materials and provides valuable jobs, it produces large amounts of hazardous waste, and the hazardous working conditions have led to many deaths, as shown in a separate, EU-commissioned study1.
Once the ships are beached, thousands of workers break up the vessels and all fixtures, furnishings and furniture are removed. Sections of metal are cut off and hammered into smaller sheets which are sent to rerolling mills located nearby which supply 90 per cent of the steel used in Bangladesh.
Nothing is wasted, with an estimated 99 per cent of the ship recycled and sold on. For example, steel rods are used as reinforcing in new houses and apartments and reconditioned boilers, compressors and generators are used in the clothing industry. However, toxic materials, particularly asbestos, are also recycled into construction materials instead of being disposed of safely. This is one material that the authors suggest is best treated as genuine waste.
Since the mid 1980s, the region has seen a rapid expansion in shops selling almost anything salvaged from the ships. For example, in 2008, there were 72 furniture businesses, most of which were selling reconditioning furniture from the ships. In many cases, entirely new pieces of furniture are made from the scrap wood and furnishings.
At the same time, a growing middle class in Bangladesh is creating demand for household furniture, which is modern, affordable and disposable. Traditionally, furniture in Bangladesh was made of teak, but teak furniture is expensive and the ships´ renovated and remanufactured furniture is affordable for Bangladesh's middle classes. Carpentry and upholstery skills can be applied to produce furniture that appeals to middle class consumers. For example, furniture covered with Formica (a decorative and heat-resistant layered material made of molded plastic and paper) looks 'shiny and new' and is sought out by consumers who cannot afford more expensive furniture.
There are major concerns over the environmental and health impacts of the ship breaking industry and the lack of waste treatment facilities to treat its hazardous waste. The High Court of Bangladesh directed the Bangladeshi Government in March 2009 to close all existing recycling yards. A report submitted to the Court by the Department of Environment had indeed showed that none of the existing 36 ship-breaking yards had received the necessary environmental clearance required to operate.
Although there are many concerns about this particular industry, under well-managed, safe conditions, this study demonstrates the potential for many materials to be used 'endlessly' and diverted from landfill.