A ship breaking yard is a port, dock or, more recently, a beach where ships that have run to their life expectancy (25-30 years) are dismantled and salvaged for their re-usable or recyclable parts — typically steel and iron. Along with the valuable metal recovered from decommissioned vessels, there are also a number of hazardous and toxic materials, such as asbestos, lead, mercury and waste oils, that come from broken down ships.
Major ship breaking yards were, until the 1970s, found in Europe and America, where the process of ship breaking was highly mechanized and well regulated. However, the increasing costs of ship breaking along with the cheapness of labor in Asia has meant that much of the industry has been moved to the Indian subcontinent, China and Turkey. These areas also have less stringent environmental laws which make the industry more financially viable than in the West. Ship breaking yards and their associated scrap markets are currently concentrated in Bangladesh’s biggest port, Chittagong, as well as Alang in the State of Gujarat in India.
Ship breaking in the East is commonly undertaken by men, women and children with the ship breaking yard little more than the beach where the ship is moored. The vessel to be broken is driven at full speed at high tide toward the shore and left until the waters recede, when the salvage teams can begin their work. The process is more rudimentary than it is in the West, with blow torches, sledgehammers and bare hands the tools by which a super tanker of typically 240,000 tons can be broken down in a couple of months.
The dangerous conditions and miserly pay rates associated with ship breaking in India and Bangladesh has provoked the ire of environmental groups, who view the breaking of ships at ‘wet’ ship breaking yards as a particularly hazardous practice that imperils both the salvage team and the local environment. Their recommendation of ‘dry’ ship breaking yards has found an audience in China, where burgeoning capitalism and a huge demand for steel has seen ports such as those in Shanghai develop into modernized ship breaking yards where the yield of steel is substantially better than in India and the ‘dry’ conditions of the dismantlement appease the environmentalists.