07 November 2011

Ships and the waste-resource interface:

While a clear-cut decision on which laws should apply to ships bound for the breaker’s yard failed to materialise last month, the tide appears to be turning against the backers of a regime that would snarl shipbreaking in red tape.

A meeting in Cartagena, Colombia, of countries signed up to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal had raised expectations it would answer the question of whether the alternative convention on shipbreaking should take precedence over the hazardous-waste treaty if levels of control and enforcement were judged to be equivalent.

The European Union, Japan, China and the US were the most significant backers of the Hong Kong Convention on Ship Recycling adopted by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in 2009, while developing countries, supported by environmental NGOs, were among those expressing preference for Basel. The outcome, however, was less clear-cut than many would have wished, although some environmental campaigners, who have long argued Basel should apply to ships, interpreted the Delphic statements that emanated from the meeting as a victory.

A decision was reached at the meeting on the so-called Ban Amendment to the Basel Convention, which, although adopted in 1995, has been prevented from being implemented by a technical insufficiency of ratifications. This problem was overcome in Cartagena, meaning in theory, though not necessarily in practice, the export of hazardous wastes from “rich” countries (predominantly OECD members) to “poor” countries will be banned.

The Ban Amendment decision lead one of the most vociferous campaigners against ships being scrapped in countries like India, Bangladesh and Pakistan to claim it would ban “all exports of hazardous wastes, including electronic wastes and old obsolete ships, from developed to developing countries”. However, this interpretation assumes that ships will in fact be subject to Basel when, although it has yet to be written on stone tablets, it is more likely that they will not be. It also betrays a view that is set to become outdated.

Those responsible for administering and refining the rules on hazardous waste have already recognised the need for a rethink. One of the problems for the Basel treaty is that it is one-way only in that it rests on the premise that “toxic waste”, that can include anything from chemical slops to old computers, flows only from rich OECD countries to poorer non-OECD countries. This means, for example, if China scraps ships in India or sends unwanted laptops to Bangladesh for “recycling”, the shipments between these non-OECD countries are not subject to Basel. This flaw in Basel has been recognised, with the convention’s secretariat noting that in the intervening years the trade in hazardous waste between developing countries has grown significantly and admitting it will not be addressed by the Ban Amendment.

Basel was developed to address the perceived problem of “toxic” waste being shipped from countries whose legislation and public attitudes made proper disposal expensive to those where it was less regulated and so cheaper. “Toxic dumping” of such waste in the latter became a cause célèbre and helped create the current system of export licensing, based on the prior informed consent of importing countries. It also helped sustain the now-popular image that the “North” – the industrialised economies of principally Europe and North America – exploited the “South” (essentially Africa and less developed parts of Asia) as dumping grounds.

There are signs, however, that the stereotypical image is being challenged, with talk of a “paradigm shift” in thinking among policy-makers about how waste, hazardous or not, should be treated. A document, described in typical bureaucratese as a “non-paper” and circulating among environmental bureaucrats, dares to consider that, instead of restricting or even banning trade in such wastes, it should be seen as a potential economic resource and, presumably, facilitated as such.

The non-paper (“Shifting paradigms: from waste to resources”) says “one of the largest unaddressed challenges facing the international waste agenda in general and the [Basel Convention] in particular” is the “waste-resource interface”, in much the same way that a beach may be described as the “shore-sea interface”.

In an annex listing “complex wastes” and “organic and household-like wastes”, end-of-life ships (as they are called in such circles) fall into the former category, although how they, like batteries used in cars or mobile phones, would be “collected” or “pre-processed” or “refined” is not made clear.

The experts asked to consider the problem concluded that the Basel Convention “needs to modernise to keep pace with the paradigm shift” and that signatory countries should consider, alongside environmentally sound management of hazardous waste, “the issue of resource management through a lifecycle approach which incorporates economic, social and environmental sustainability”.

With the world order going through a re-alignment, as the old guard of Europe and the US is set to be surpassed – economically at least – by the newly emerging giants from Asia and South America, many of the institutions and treaties that govern global trade are becoming outdated. Indeed, in an area crowded with similar bodies (the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to mention two), the point of the Paris-based OECD itself becomes less and less clear.

With India and China (neither a member of the OECD) 2 of the biggest recyclers of ships and at the same time 2 of the most rapidly expanding economies, the idea that they are poor countries to which rich countries send their unwanted waste, including ships, begins to lose credibility. And if the paradigm shift in thinking among regulators on how waste should be regarded – as a potential resource just as much as a hazard – actually occurs, the argument advanced by the industry that shipbreaking is a prime example of recycling should make better headway.

For now, however, those who beat the Basel drum will continue to make the cacophony that has tended too often to drown out the sound of those suggesting another way is possible, even if it involves a waste–resource interface.

Source: Baird Maritime. By Andrew Guest. 4 November 2011

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