Beyond Borders: Sustainable Ship Recycling Practices in India and the Western Hemisphere

18 Nov 2023
Author: Dr. Anand Hiremath

In the world of ship recycling, a transformative industry lies at the intersection of environmental sustainability and innovative reuse strategies. India, a key player in this global ship recycling, offers a unique approach that not only challenges conventional practices but also sets a new standard in resource management and environmental stewardship. This article delves into the heart of India's ship recycling industry, uncovering how its emphasis on reuse, upcycling, and sustainable practices contrasts sharply with European models and contributes significantly to both local economies and global environmental goals.

Discover the intricate journey of ship materials from being part of vast sea-faring vessels to being repurposed into valuable resources in bustling markets. We explore how India's approach goes beyond mere recycling, weaving a narrative of economic vitality, environmental responsibility, and social impact. By contrasting India's methods with recycling practices in the Western world and examining the broader implications on greenhouse gas emissions and circular economy models, this article offers a comprehensive insight into an industry that stands at the forefront of sustainable industrial transformation. Join us in uncovering the compelling story of ship recycling in India – a narrative that's not just about ship recycling but about shaping a more sustainable future.

Understanding "Reuse" in Ship Recycling in India:

India's ship recycling industry, notable for its emphasis on 'reuse,' presents a compelling case of environmental stewardship and resource optimization. This approach not only sets it apart from recycling in developed countries but also has significant implications for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the circular economy, and life cycle perspectives. Here’s a more detailed look at the materials and their potential for reuse:

Steel (90% of Ship's Composition):

Profile Steel Reuse: About 10% of the profile steel recovered from ships is adeptly repurposed into flanges and angles. These components are essential in various construction and manufacturing industries, demonstrating a sustainable way of repurposing what would otherwise be scrap material.

Scrap for Melting: A portion, between 8-10%, is designated as scrap and is melted down. This material is then recycled and used in industries that require raw steel, thereby reducing the demand for virgin material extraction.

Re-Rolling Processes: The largest share, approximately 70%, is used in re-rolling processes. This involves rolling steel into new forms, such as rods and sheets, which are then used in a multitude of applications, from construction to manufacturing, thereby significantly extending the lifecycle of the original material.

Hazardous and Non-Hazardous Waste (0.5-1%): This small but crucial fraction of the ship's composition includes materials that are hazardous or potentially hazardous. The proper handling and disposal of these materials are paramount to preventing environmental contamination and health risks. Indian ship recycling yards are increasingly focusing on better ways to handle such waste, emphasizing safety and environmental compliance.

Machinery (4%): This category includes a wide range of mechanical devices such as generators, main engines, pumps, lathe machines, and other equipment. These items are often in good working condition and can be refurbished and sold for reuse in various industries. This not only prolongs the life of these machines but also reduces the environmental impact associated with manufacturing new machinery.

Furniture and Fixtures (0.5%): The furniture and fixtures recovered, including wooden panels, doors, beds, and other items, are often repurposed or sold to businesses and individuals. This segment highlights the potential for creative reuse, turning what might be seen as waste into valuable items for hospitality, domestic, or decorative use.

Non-ferrous Materials (0.5%):
This includes valuable metals like copper, aluminium, brass, bronze, and nickel. These materials are sought after for their specific properties, such as corrosion resistance, and are often repurposed in various industrial applications. The reuse of non-ferrous materials is particularly important, as it helps conserve these limited resources and reduces the environmental impact associated with their extraction and processing.

This detailed understanding of India's 'reuse' strategy in ship recycling underlines the industry's commitment to maximizing the potential of recovered materials. By effectively repurposing a vast majority of ship components, the industry not only contributes significantly to resource conservation but also plays a crucial role in reducing the environmental footprint of ship recycling and waste generation.

The Secondary Market Thriving Around Ship Recycling Yards


A Hub of Economic Activity and Sustainability:

The ship recycling yards in India, particularly in Alang, have catalyzed the growth of a vibrant secondary market, an essential component of the ship recycling ecosystem. This bustling market, thriving on the outskirts of ship recycling yards, plays a pivotal role in the local economy and environmental sustainability.

  • Diverse Range of Shops and Products:
    Over 800 shops in the vicinity of these yards specialize in selling a wide array of items recovered from recycled ships. These include everything from machinery and electrical components to furniture, fixtures, and unique maritime artifacts.
    Each shop in this market is a testament to the resourcefulness and entrepreneurial spirit that drive the local economy. The items sold here are not just products; they carry stories of the high seas, making them unique and valuable.

  • Economic Impact and Livelihoods:
    This secondary market is not just a hub for repurposed goods; it's a significant source of employment and income. Current estimates suggest that nearly 100,000 people derive their livelihood from this market, underscoring its importance in the local socio-economic fabric.
    The market's existence also demonstrates the economic viability of the ship recycling industry, extending beyond the yards themselves to encompass a wider community benefit.

  • Environmental Benefits of Repurposing: From an environmental perspective, the secondary market is a cornerstone of sustainability. By repurposing and selling materials from recycled ships, these shops significantly reduce the demand for new production of similar items. Manufacturing new products consumes vast amounts of natural resources, including water, raw materials, and energy. The secondary market bypasses this need, thereby conserving resources and reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

  • Supporting a Circular Economy: The concept of a circular economy is perfectly represented in this market. It demonstrates how materials and products can have multiple life cycles, thus reducing waste and environmental impact. As consumer awareness about the ecological footprint of their purchases grows, industries globally need to adapt. The secondary market around ship recycling yards is a prime example of this adaptation, showing how industries can evolve in response to both economic and environmental imperatives.

A Model for Sustainable Development: The secondary market around ship recycling yards in India is more than just a commercial venture; it's a model for sustainable development. By blending economic viability with environmental stewardship, these markets showcase how repurposing and reusing materials can lead to a more sustainable future. As the world moves towards more eco-conscious practices, the success of these markets serves as a beacon, demonstrating the harmonious coexistence of profitability and ecological responsibility.

List of materials recovered during the ship recycling process and reused

Recovered items

Furniture and fixtures


Wardrobes/ cupboards, Chairs with and without cushions, tables, cots, mirrors & mirrors cabinets, tables, benches, boxes, and doors

Wood and Plywood

Kitchen and Mess units

Dishes, Dishwashers, electric heaters, refrigerators, washing machines, deep refrigerators, water coolers, and dry provision stores

Bathroom Fixtures

Urinals, bathtubs, wash basins, commodes, and plastic buckets

On-board machinery

Electrical and Mechanical Appliances

Transformers, heat exchangers, condensers, generators, alternators, Compressors, Boilers, Oil Water Purifiers, AC Cooling units, marine engines, Cloth Driers, Water Pumps, Cranes, Winches, Pipes, Welding Machines, Batteries, Gas Cutters, Fans, Shaft Bearings, Lighting equipment, sports and gym equipment, propellers

Garage and Stores

Bolts, nuts, screws, ship logs, polypropylene ropes, steel wire ropes, net, tarpoline, brushes, paint cleaning scrappers, spare gaskets, tools like hammers and chisels, lathe machines, pipes, Oil spill mitigation units, Chemicals, and paints

Miscellaneous items

Office Equipment

Computers, Printers and scanners, fax machines, telex machines, wall clocks, binoculars, record players, vacuum cleaners, Calculators, projectors, and office stationery

Lifesaving Equipment

Lifebuoys, lifeboats, life jackets, life rafts, mooring boats, Foam tanks, fire extinguishers, Boiler suits, helmets, Cables, Masks, and safety harness belts

Signaling Devices

Intercoms & telephones, GPS systems, Periscopes, loudspeakers, megaphones, foghorns, Thermometers, barometers, and marine compass


Green Steel and Life Cycle Perspective: The concept of green steel, realized through India's ship recycling practices, is a testament to the country's forward-thinking approach. By recycling steel, India showcases a life cycle perspective that is environmentally sound and economically viable.

  • Conservation of Iron Ore and Energy:

    • The steel recycling process in India conserves significant amounts of virgin iron ore and saves energy. This method is a stark contrast to the more greenhouse gas-intensive processes used in European electric arc furnaces.

    • The energy-efficient recycling of steel not only conserves natural resources but also reduces the carbon footprint of steel production.

Wood Reuse and Forest Conservation: India's ship recycling industry has made notable strides in wood reuse, leading to significant environmental benefits. The repurposing of wood recovered from ships has contributed to the preservation of extensive forest cover.

  • CO2 Capture and Climate Change Mitigation:

    • By reusing wood from ships, India has effectively saved forest cover equivalent to hundreds of football fields over the last decade. This translates into the direct capture of thousands of tons of CO2, playing a crucial role in combating global warming.

    • Forest conservation, achieved through this reuse, supports biodiversity and maintains ecological balance, underscoring the industry's commitment to environmental protection.

Conservation of Non-Ferrous Materials: The effective recovery and reuse of non-ferrous materials from ships are central to India's environmental strategy. This approach minimizes the need for new resource extraction, reducing the environmental impact associated with mining and processing.

  • Reducing Resource Extraction and Environmental Harm:

    • The recovery and reuse of metals like copper, aluminium, and brass from ships have resulted in the conservation of nearly hundreds of thousands of tons of these materials. This significant achievement reduces the strain on natural resources and decreases the environmental harm associated with mining and processing activities.

    • The strategic utilization of these recycled materials exemplifies a sustainable approach to resource management, aligning with global efforts to preserve our planet's resources for future generations.

The European Contrast: Divergent Practices in Ship Recycling


Differences in Reuse and Recycling Approaches: The ship recycling practices in European yards present a stark contrast to those in India, particularly in terms of reuse and environmental impact. This distinction is crucial for understanding the varying approaches to sustainability in the global ship recycling industry.

  • Limited Reuse in European Yards:

In Europe, the focus is predominantly on recycling rather than reuse. For instance, only about 4% of machinery and other materials from dismantled ships are reused, which is significantly lower compared to the broader reuse strategy employed in Indian yards.
This difference underscores the potential for greater resource conservation and sustainability in ship recycling practices, a key aspect of the global shift towards eco-friendly industrial processes.

  • Steel Recycling Practices:

The treatment of steel in European ship recycling yards also differs. A substantial 85% of the steel from ships is processed into scrap for melting in electric arc furnaces, compared to India's more diversified approach, which includes significant amounts of steel being re-rolled, repurposed, and only a modest percentage going to electric arc furnaces.
The European method, while efficient in recycling, misses out on the added value and reduced environmental impact that come with a more extensive reuse strategy.

The Export of Scrap Steel Via Ships from Europe to India: A Dive into GHG Emissions


Assessing the Environmental Impact of Steel Transportation: The trade of scrap steel recovered from ship recycling yards in Europe to India offers a complex insight into the environmental implications of global trade, particularly concerning greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

  • Ship Emissions and Fuel Combustion:

The primary emission source in this trade route is the combustion of bunker fuels in ships, which release carbon dioxide (CO2), sulfur oxides (SOx), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and particulate matter. These emissions contribute significantly to global warming and air pollution.

The use of heavy fuel oil (HFO) or marine diesel oil (MDO) in ships is common, and while some modern ships use liquefied natural gas (LNG), it's not without its environmental drawbacks, such as methane slip during combustion.

  • Handling and Logistics:

The process of loading, transporting, and unloading scrap steel involves additional energy consumption and GHG emissions. Heavy machinery like cranes and trucks, mostly powered by diesel, adds to the overall carbon footprint of this trade.

The energy consumption and emissions associated with the storage and preliminary processing of scrap before it's loaded for transportation also contribute to the environmental impact.

  • Indirect Emissions:

Infrastructure maintenance for ports and roads and the construction and maintenance of cargo ships contribute indirectly to GHG emissions. These aspects are often overlooked but are integral to the overall environmental impact of the steel recycling trade.

A Blueprint for Future Practices:
India's approach serves as a blueprint for other countries and industries aiming to balance profitability with ecological responsibility. By showcasing effective resource management and environmental care, India sets a commendable standard in the global ship recycling industry.

In conclusion, the exploration of ship recycling practices in India versus Western recycling yards underscores a significant shift towards sustainable and environmentally conscious methods in the global maritime industry. India's innovative approach, emphasizing reuse, not only sets a benchmark in resource conservation but also challenges traditional practices, offering lessons in ecological efficiency for the world. This comparative analysis illuminates the potential for transformative change in the ship recycling sector, highlighting how India's pioneering efforts are paving the way for a greener future. As the global community continues to wrestle with environmental challenges, the practices and principles demonstrated in India's ship recycling industry serve as a beacon of sustainable development, inspiring nations and industries to adopt more eco-friendly and responsible approaches.


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About Author

Dr. Anand M. Hiremath, Chief Sustainability Officer of GMS Leadership, is a Civil Engineer and holds a Master's Degree in Environmental Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati (IIT Guwahati) India. He has a diploma in industrial safety and is a qualified lead auditor for ISO 9k, 14k and 184.

Dr. Hiremath published the first practical handbook on ship recycling, entitled: 'The Green Handbook: A Practical Checklist to Monitor the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships' which highlights the procedures the GMS SSORP follows to help both Ship and Yard Owners recycle a vessel in an environmentally-friendly manner. Dr. Hiremath is the Course Director for the first-of-its-kind 14-week online course on Ship Recycling offered by Lloyd's Maritime Academy, London."

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Ship Recycling Team