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Article: Transboundary movement of waste

News & Insights 10 July 2019

Shipping of waste or hazardous materials internationally is a regular but also regulatory affair. But how is this affected when the ship itself is the waste?


Tom Peter Blankestijn
Managing Director, Sea2Cradle
T +31 65367 7232


Shipping of waste or hazardous materials internationally is a regular but also regulatory affair. But how is this affected when the ship itself is the waste?

We often think that importing and exporting materials is just a matter of customs and paying taxes. However, in reality, it is more complicated. There
is various legislation (at regional, national and international level) that decides how to handle the shipment of waste from one country to another.

How waste is defined

What about ships? They operate under their own power with valid certificates. Is a ship considered waste, or not? Under normal circumstances, it is legally not viewed as waste. A ship can freely operate and sail towards
every port in the world. However, if the shipowner decides to sell the ship for dismantling and starts to act accordingly, the ship becomes ‘waste’ under the terms of the Basel Convention and/or the European Waste Shipment Regulation ((EC) no. 1013/2016). The Basel Convention regulates the transboundary movement of waste globally, which includes the disposal of ships or waste generated from ships. It has been implemented into EU law under the EU Waste Shipment Regulation.

The ship as waste

Under this legislation, a legal notification process needs to be followed to import and export the ship (the so-called ‘Prior Informed Consent Procedure’). The location of the ship at that moment in time determines the
country of export, and the location of the recycling facility determines the country of import. In reality, some shipowners circumvent the above
regulations by taking the decision to recycle when the ship is in international
waters or in countries that do not fall within their scope. In that case, the
location of the ship will fall outside the jurisdiction of a country of export.

What happens to ships which were involved in a collision or need to be
salvaged? These ships are taken to a port of refuge or deviate to their
next port in order to be inspected by surveyors to determine the extent of the damage sustained and to estimate the repair costs or determine whether the damage amounts to a constructive total loss. These ports or locations are normally not designed to deal with all sorts of waste, but they serve as a safe place to prevent further damage. The repairs can result in materials needing to be removed, which can include hazardous materials. A judgement call needs to be made as to whether these materials can be
disposed of in a waste disposal facility in the country of repair or whether the waste management, including final disposal of these materials, needs to be arranged elsewhere. If this is outside the country, these hazardous materials need to be exported and imported to a country where they can be handled according to the Basel Convention/EU Waste Shipment Regulation.

Additional considerations

The situation can get extremely complicated if a ship has had a huge fire and cargo loss is involved. In such cases, not only the materials on board need to be identified in terms of the amount and their particular hazards,
but also the materials that have melted and are half burnt need to be checked for any new hazardous substances. For example, fire and firefighting water can result in chemical reactions which will create new hazardous materials. This process of identification requires a proper sampling plan, delicate removal procedures, arranging temporary storage and waste handling. This process will apply up to the moment the (hazardous) waste can be disposed of safely. Also, notification requirements for import and export of these materials needs to be arranged in case of transboundary movement.

All these notification procedures take time, but if arranged properly, this should only involve selecting an appropriate certified waste disposal facility, concluding a contract with the facility and arranging the required paperwork with the authorities in the countries of export and import. This is not a difficult task, but one that is time-consuming and requires a good understanding of the materials involved.

These precautions for the shipment of waste have a big cost element and
need to be managed accordingly. Risk analysis is required to keep full control of these often unique and complicated operations.


We can conclude that a ship in itself is not waste, but it generates, creates and becomes waste during its operation, as a result of a casualty or as a result of a final decision being made regarding its disposal.

Categories: Cargo, Major Casualty Management, Pollution

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