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Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

A more efficient clean up of the ship recycling industry

Launch of the photo exhibition "Broken" organised by the NGO Shipbreaking Platform

Brussels, 8 February 2011

Thank you for inviting me this evening. It gives me a chance to speak, and a chance to see these exceptional photographs.

And what an appropriate title for this exhibition. The word "Broken" says much about our relationship with the world –about how we deal with the things we don't need any more, and about the effect of our behaviour on health, environment and society.

Saiful Huq Omi is a "photo activist". And his pictures beg us to do something about what we see. They show people, isolated from their families, working in inhumane conditions, doing a highly dangerous, sometimes deadly job,… because they have no other choice.

This is the kind of thing that governments, international organisations and industry have an urgent duty to stop. It's a threat to people, to the environment and to our very future.

I know that some action is already being taken. The decision of Bangladeshi Courts to clean up this industry by closing unauthorized yards is an important step. And I would like to highlight the role played by BELA, one of the associations of the NGO Platform, in achieving such a positive outcome.

But can we do more?... Not only we can; we must!

The ship recycling market is global and very competitive. When sub-standard yards are closed in one country, they immediately reopen somewhere else. It's a profitable job – and someone, somewhere is always prepared to do it, whatever the cost in human and environmental terms.

This means we have to think globally to solve the problem. And we need to think long term. We need to push out the sub-standard operators, and provide the incentives for the good operators.

This will mean developing specific legal instruments. Because our current legislative instruments are designed to control movements of wastes, but can't easily be applied to ships. Ships move, they can change flags…they're a kind of moving target.

This was the objective behind the Hong Kong Convention for the Safe and Sound Recycling of Ships. It specifically addresses the whole life-cycle of ships.

It limits the use of hazardous materials during the design and operational phases to avoid future pollution. It obliges ship-owners to tell workers if there is hazardous waste on board and protect them from it. And we must do anything we can to prevent the kind of accident that led to the deaths of another four Bangladeshi men only last month in Chittagong in an explosion in a dismantling yard.

Our challenge sounds quite simple:… to ensure that our ships end up in safe and sound recycling facilities. But in reality is far from easy. Today we are faced with the delays in ratifying the Hong Kong Convention. And we also know that that Convention is not enough on its own to answer the challenge.

Ship-owners have to take responsibility. Some are already doing it by choosing to invest in green and safe facilities, and by establishing inventories of hazardous materials. But more can certainly be done and we have to provide encouragement and incentives.

We also have to ensure that existing green and safe facilities are used at full capacity and that new ones are developed with a sound set of criteria for safe environmental dismantling management. We have offered our full support to the IMO and urge it to work speedily on developing those criteria.

I know that ship recycling is vital for the economies of certain countries. We should not underestimate its importance in providing jobs and incomes, and we must understand that this is the principle interest and motivation for local populations and businesses.

Ship recycling also provides a valuable role in ensuring that precious resources are put back into use, rather than simply being dumped.

So ship recycling has important benefits, but we have to make the sector more transparent, more environmentally friendly and above all a place where people can earn their living safely, without fear of death or injury.

I am making the resource efficiency a central pillar of the European approach to reducing the impact of our activities on the environment. Recycling is essential to efficient use of resources, but recycling itself must not itself come with a high environmental price. The incentives to recycle must not be only economic – the recuperation of valuable materials – they must also be for the wider public and environmental benefit.

I know not everyone agrees on whether the Hong Kong Convention will be able to help solving the difficult issue of ship dismantling. In the European Commission we certainly believe that rapid ratification of the Hong Kong Convention would help to improve the current situation; that is why I am actively encouraging EU Member States to ratify it.

But I am also willing, indeed keen, to listen to the views and proposals of anyone who is active in this area. My presence here today is of course not a coincidence. It should be considered as an acknowledgement of the importance of the problem, and of my readiness to contribute to its solution. I also wanted this opportunity to pay tribute to many of you who are doing an excellent job out there.

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. I don't know exactly how many words I have just used, but it is less than a thousand, so one of these pictures will outweigh what I have just said. So thank you for showing us your view of this broken world. And Let's do our best to fix it together.

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