When a product reaches the end of its useful life, it is discarded. For materials that have recycling value, such as an empty steel can or appliance, they are responsibly given new life through a recycling service such as curbside pickup or a drop-off location. But, what happens when a large Navy or commercial vessel is no longer in ‘ship shape?’ Much like other recyclable steel products, ships are steel-intensive sources of valuable, recyclable materials.
Ship dismantling is a planned process of systematically breaking down ships that have reached the end of their useful life to reclaim their recyclable materials—especially steel. The dismantling of ships can range from small, private ships to 15,000 ton U.S. Navy vessels. And, over 90 percent of the materials in these large vessels can be recycled or reused.
In fact, last year, 15-20 million tons of steel was recovered worldwide from ship dismantling. But, despite the planned nature of the recycling process and the environmental and worker protections that are in place, the industry still faces a challenge of public misconceptions about the environmental effects and potential dangers of the dismantling/recycling process. While a lot of these concerns originate more from international procedures, domestic practices still face negative stereotypes with the general public because of some of those international procedures and the history of the industry.
However, according to Curt Michanczyk, Director of the Office of Ship Disposal Programs for the Maritime Administration, the domestic ship recycling process once known as ‘ship scrapping’ is now a planned dismantling/recycling process that maximizes the collection of recyclables while protecting the environment and the safety and health of the workers involved.
“In the 1990’s, the domestic and international industry was not highly regarded at all,” Michanczyk discussed. “We’re not using [the term ship scrapping] anymore so it gets us away from those archaic environmental regulation lapses, and worker safety/health lapses.”
Michanczyk feels people who are not closely associated with the industry may think ships are still abandoned irresponsibly, but that too is a misconception.
“There were some government vessels sold in the 70’s, 80’s that weren’t tracked. In some cases, the new owners, who may have had good intentions, would take possession of vessels and later abandoned them in some waterway,” he explains. “These ships are very visible and very large. If something was done incorrectly, even decades ago but the vessel survives, it leads to the misconception that the industry hasn’t changed and is not safe.”
The process that the Maritime Administration uses now includes an extensive qualification process for industrial facilities to be approved for Government ship dismantling contracts.
“We don’t just go out and issue a contract to anyone who wants to recycle a vessel,” Michanczyk said. “We have a requirement for recyclers to turn in technical proposals that explain their expertise, experience, management structure, key personnel and facilities, in order to demonstrate to us that they’re capable of properly identifying, removing and disposing of hazardous materials with an important emphasis on workers safety and health and the environment.”
Since only approved facilities can compete for contracts, the administration can track and have active oversight to ensure the responsible dismantling of these vessels.
After a company is approved for a contract, they transport the ship to their facility. Due to the size of many vessels, this work is often done outside in the elements which also contributes to industry misconceptions.
“[The recycling process] is such a visible thing,” says Michanczyk. “People see ships out there, visible from busy roads in a lot of cases, and they’re in various stages of deconstruction. It’s often not a pretty sight. There is smoke coming out from torch cutting, it’s noisy, and not always a real organized looking facility when in midst of deconstructing a ship. A manufacturing or assembly process can be hidden away in a building, ship dismantling/recycling can’t.”
Due to this high visibility of the process, local municipalities may express concerns despite the industrial jobs that the facility can offer struggling areas.
“Since each ship is a little different, dismantlement processes and procedures differ from ship to ship and facility to facility,” says Michanczyk. “Training is huge. They have to train a work force to make sure that even beginning workers are aware of hazards that are very common in industrial facilities.”
After the vessel is brought into the facility, the next step is identifying and characterizing the hazardous materials. Older ships contain asbestos, lead paint, fuels or other materials that may threaten the environment and endanger workers and those materials must be located, sampled, sent to labs, and then verified for special handling and disposal.
Areas that contain these materials are cordoned off to allow access to only trained personnel that can properly prepare the space and certify it is cleaned.
Once areas are declared acceptable, recycling of useful items can begin.
A lot of equipment is able to be reused. Valves can be reconditioned. Motors can be resold. It is very cost effective.
Once these smaller items are removed, the deconstruction of the vessel can begin. Generally starting from the top down, these ships that can range from 300-700 feet long can take months, or even up to a year, to carefully take apart and conserve the quality of any materials for reuse and recycling.
“One of the challenges these facilities have is that ship recycling is very labor-intensive work,” says Michanczyk. “No real automation exists to take the human element out of the process. There is a risk to worker safety and health and companies have to be cognizant of that. Each ship has a different configuration and the work is accomplished outside in the elements. Safety and environmental oversight needs to be very good because with the amount of labor involved, accidents can happen.”
On average over the past 10 years, the Maritime Administration has issued 18 contracts a year for dismantling decommissioned vessels from the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard and other federal agencies. Over 200 ships have been disposed of since 2001.
“Ship dismantling is a very necessary and very efficient process from a recycling and sustainability perspective,” concludes Michanczyk. “[These vessels] contain so much metal, without recycling those resources would be lost forever. Depending on the ship’s condition, more than 90% of the weight is made up of recyclable material. The majority is steel, but there is also copper, copper alloys and cast iron.”
“[Dismantling/recycling] is the most sustainable method for disposing of ships that have reached the end of their useful life.”