Back in the late nineties my colleagues and I were really well prepared to begin dismantling oil and gas platforms in the North Sea, but despite all odds oil prices went up again and nobody decommissioned anything. But I thought recycling of big things was really interesting and turned to the ship recycling instead. This has been a core professional activity for me since and for my colleagues in Litehauz now for a decade.
European recyclers, and anyone else who cares, can witness 80% of the global end-of-life vessels (flagged in the EU or not) end up on the beaches in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, where the photogenic ship-breaking activities has been a constant source of disturbing images of the poor working conditions. Through skillful lobbying against these and for EU based ship recycling, the 2013 EU Regulation on Ship Recycling came about mandating proper recycling of EU flagged vessels. So, is it finally going to be glory days again for the EU ship recyclers? Short version: No.
Of course the regulation will improve the order books of EU based recyclers. There will be state-owned vessels, ferries and other iconic vessels, and tonnage from image conscious and/or responsible shipowners. But don’t expect a flotilla of Member state flagged vessels returning home to die. For one thing, a ship is easily reflagged in an afternoon, but we will also have the “European List” identifying EU accepted recycling yards in third countries, e.g. in China, Turkey and maybe even in India.
I do think the European recyclers can produce a much stronger business case, if we just stop trying to get a view of the future in the rear mirror. We should look to prepare for a niche business, taking note that ship designers in high value markets aim for vessels with a shorter life span, with more flexibility or even structurally prepared for conversions. We must take note that modular construction and the use of composites seem to catch on left, right and center in the shipbuilding industry. Now is the time to team up with the local active shipbuilding yards to increase modularity and the ease of dismantling. Learn from the superyacht sector on the use of composites, and carve out that niche of doing the challenging recycling stuff that will be difficult to copy. And to the keep wheels turning we may have to woo that elusive oil and gas sector again.