What is Ship Breaking?

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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 18 October 2019
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Ship breaking is the process of dismantling a ship that has been retired from active use. The idea behind this process is to salvage as much of the material from the ship as possible and recycle the components in some manner. Also known as ship demolition and ship recycling, ship breaking is usually employed when the cost of repairing the ship and keeping it in active use can no longer be justified.

For most of the 20th century, the majority of the ship breaking activity in the world was carried out in Great Britain and the United States. During the final half of the century, shipyards that engaged in ship breaking began to appear in various countries around the Middle East as well as in South America. By the beginning of the 21st century, ship breaking had become a common task that is performed in many shipyards around the world.

Part of the attraction for ship breaking today has to do with the practical use of available resources. As part of the process, components that can be salvaged from the ship are removed first. This can include everything from engine parts to sleeping bunks and even bulkheads. Once the vessel is stripped of all components that can be cleaned and reused in other ships, the remainder of the hull undergoes a process of demolition that often leads to breaking down the shell and selling the pieces as scrap metal.


The scrap metal obtained from ship breaking sometimes undergoes a melting and purification process that allows the metal to be remolded and used to create new components that are incorporated into new ships. This process makes it possible to constantly recycle materials and can often help decrease the cost associated with the production of newer ships.

Not all the materials that are separated in a ship breaking process can be reused or recycled into new components. The asbestos used in many ships prior to the middle 20th century is disposed of and no reused in new construction. In addition, paints and other sealants that contain high levels of lead and other toxins that are no longer in use must be removed from the components before harvesting of the materials can take place. In some cases, addressing the proper disposal of contaminants that cause a threat to the environment constitute a major part of the expense of the effort.


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