Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Environmental and Energy Policy (PhD)

Administrative Home Department

Department of Social Sciences

Advisor 1

Audrey L. Mayer

Committee Member 1

Emma S. Norman

Committee Member 2

Chelsea Schelly

Committee Member 3

Robert Handler


The international shipbreaking industry connects developed and developing countries through the spatial and temporal flow of resources, both transported by the ships and by the recycling of the ships themselves. Much of the research on this industry to date focuses on a natural science perspective, particularly related to local pollution when the ships are recycled. However, many products for the public (such as documentaries and magazine articles) focus on the workers who dismantle these ships, often with minimal protection; the appalling images of shipbreaking yard workers and their polluted surrounds have garnered immense global attention and calls for better regulations.

In this dissertation, I examine how these environmental and worker rights issues can be understood through multiple disciplinary perspectives – industrial ecology (and one of its commonly used tools, Life Cycle Assessment), political ecology and environmental policy. Through an industrial ecology perspective, I examine how the social embeddedness in Bangladesh influences the flow of recycled scrap metal thorough the country. My study suggests that reciprocal and trust-based business connections provide the necessary leverage to maintain the flow of scrap resources from the Chittagong ship breaking yards on the coast to the metalsmith community in Old Dhaka.

In chapter two, I use Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) to assess the impacts of the shipbreaking industry on local environmental conditions and worker health. The results of the LCA pose a considerable challenge to the dominant narrative of the industry as wholly negative and unredeemable. My study suggests that shipbreaking produces much less pollution and risks to human health than a similar process using virgin ore would. My results also suggest that the rerolling operations (to produce rebar) – rather than the beached ship cutting and in-yard processing – are more environmentally damaging. Among localized concerns, gas torching poses considerable health challenges to the cuttermen in the yard.

In chapter three, I investigate the drivers behind the persistent negative images of shipbreaking. This dominant narrative is maintained by Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and their selective focus on pollution and accidents while ignoring improvements in the industry (e.g., introducing new technologies for managing the resources). My interviews with local stakeholders suggest that there are considerable image politics among the local NGOs that divert attention away from the global drivers of these impacts. Using political ecology to frame the scalar politics involved, I found that shipbreaking constitutes a simultaneous interplay of multiple scales, and that the NGOs’ insistence on a local scale solution detracts from the sorely needed policy reforms at national and global scales.

The last empirical chapter identifies regulatory gaps in the international treaties and domestic regulatory regimes. In particular, a significant gap exists in international treaties regarding the provision of a funding mechanism to assist developing countries such as Bangladesh. I recommend that adopting a viable financial mechanism – deposit-refund systems – and forming a recycling states alliance would greatly improve shipbreaking conditions globally.