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Rubbish disposal in Bangladesh, like other countries on the sub continent, generally consists of someone picking up the household rubbish, this then is sifted through by rag pickers, people whose job it is to separate rubbish from anything of any value, this then is dumped and set upon by more rag pickers. Plastics, metal, cloth and paper are removed. The rubbish is then consumed by dogs, cows, goats, crows and in India, pigs. Added to the fact that there is little packaging in the East means that there is little left for landfill, apart from plastic bags and the gunk that rubbish forms and its reciprocal stench.

 

One can consider this method of disposal in two ways. Firstly, when compared to our society’s wastefulness and disposable culture it almost seems Utopian, nothing of any value is wasted and put into the ground. Secondly, how disgusting is the thought of people sifting through our waste. And it is disgusting. Young children eat what they can find, dysentery and disease runs high. From a Western point of view, you don’t get much lower than this.

 

But it is to Bangladesh’s resourcefulness within recycling that I turn to the subject of of ship breaking. Chittagong is one of the few places in the world where you can see this controversial practice taking place. I had to see it, simply because the inner child within me loves to see big things broken up into small things, their gestalt as it were, the whole being the sum of its parts; I love scrap yards  of any sorts; I love ships and the bigger the better; I like a bit of controversy.

 

You know when you are getting close to the breakers’ yards because there is row upon row of shops selling second hand ship paraphernalia. This is the place to come if you want plates purporting various ship names, anchors, port holes, technical ship thingies, compasses, fog horns, ships’ bells and life boats. I was in my element sifting through the biggest nautical jumble sale in the world.

 

Buy ome lifeboat get one free

Buy one lifeboat get one free

 

 

 

 

Then there are the plants processing fiberglass, oil and most likely that most evil of substances, asbestos. Nothing it would seem goes to waste, everything has a value on it and there will always be somebody with the know how as to how to process it into something more useful and make some cash.

 

Finally you get to the breaking sites and what a vision of the apocalypse it is. As far as the eye can see container ships, oil tankers and other huge hulks have been beached like a pod of whales on a bad navigation day. An army of workers swarm over the ships slowly picking them to pieces. It can take 6 months to strip an oil tanker down to its salable bits and then cut up the steel into manageable chunks.

 

These yards are difficult to access and they certainly don’t want nosey tourists taking photos to put up on their blogs. Lots of smiling, talking about David Beckham, cups of tea, passing around cigarettes and backsheesh was required and then photos had to be taken while hiding behind huge chunks of ship.

 

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Safety standards would make even the most lapse safety officer cringe. Bare footed men carry huge sheets of steel across a tangle of oxy acetylene hoses as cutters burn through the hull, reducing it to its primal beginnings. Safety helmets and goggles, warning signs and fenced off areas, the essential requirements in a Western world amiss. This is probably one of the most dangerous places in the world, rivaled only by a Taliban arms dump with a big arrow pointing at it and a message stating “Taliban arms dump, American fighter pilots wear ladies’ panties.”

 

But the workforce do seem aware of safety issues, one man pointed at some asbestos lying on the ground and said “dangerous”, and then made a coughing sound. Another told us to stay away from the cable that drags tons of ship up the beach. If it brakes the whiplash will cut a man in half, and I am sure this is spoken from experience. Back in Chittagon I observed a higher than average rate of beggars with limbs missing. Compensation from their employers, insurance cover, no win no fee, I don’t think so.

 

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Like the rag pickers, it is dirty and dangerous work. But one thing you can be sure off is that there will be very little of the ship that enters landfill. It is in the psyche of Bangladeshis to extract as much value as possible from its waste. If this was done in the West safety standards, high wages and policies of disposal would make it an impossible task, so much would simply be buried in the ground and forgotten about.

 

Next time you marvel at a huge tanker or container ship at sea spare a thought to where it will eventually end up. The ship graveyard in a remote part of the world, and the men that live to clear up our mess. 

 

 

For more info. about this controversial practice see the Greenpeace point of view: 

 

www.greenpeaceweb.org/shipbreak/bangladesh.asp 

 

 

Click on photos to see the full collection.

 

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