Until recently, if I were asked to imagine ship-breaking operations, I would automatically think of one of those documentaries where skinny barefoot children crawl around inside beached and broken ships, pulling and cutting off the salvageable material, including scrap metal for recycling. For their efforts they receive only pennies plus a host of injuries and ailments. The leftovers, many dangerous and toxic, are often discarded with little regard for human safety and the environment. Much of this work is conducted by children because they are quick, fit into tight places on the ships and, in some parts of the world, children must work to help support their families.
This is the ugly side of recycling, where to satisfy the planet’s steel needs, we make the most vulnerable do our dirty work.
But I have now seen an alternative approach at a port in Ecuador run by IDB’s client Adelca. Here retired ships are being salvaged in a way that sets the standard for the region. The salvaged scrap will soon be converted by a modern, efficient process into the steel needed to build bridges, buildings, and other infrastructure. It’s the kind of, “cradle to grave,” or better yet, “grave to cradle,” approach essential for future infrastructure to be sustainable. Using scrap replaces the need to create steel from iron ore mined from natural deposits. It also removes the need to use natural resources in an energy-intense and environmentally damaging process. As a final bonus, it reduces the amount of waste that would otherwise be dumped in a landfill or just left someplace to rust and rot.
Adelca is a family-owned company with humble beginnings. Operations began in Aloág, near Quito in the 1960s with a manual rolling-mill that recycled locally sourced scrap from cars, appliances and machinery into steel rods. They gradually grew into a full steel manufacturing plant supplying products to the country’s construction and infrastructure sectors. Projects made with Adelca’s steel include the Quito airport, the Macará-Peru Bridge, the Quito Metro, several hydroelectric projects, and roads; but also projects closer to home such as hospitals and malls.
As their operation grew, Adelca needed more scrap if they were to continue producing steel from waste rather than raw natural resources. Ship-breaking provided an opportunity, but also the challenge to produce steel without the industry’s downsides. Adelca researched best-practices at other plants around the world. After careful planning and design Adelca’s ship-breaking yard opened in 2012. It’s still heavy industrial work. However the new facility is safe, efficient and productive, and the inherent risks of the industry are well managed. Here the huge ships arrive under their own power – an important quality factor. Then they are officially decommissioned and the scrap retrieved and processed. This begins with removing the dangerous materials in a safe and controlled way. The main structures are then disassembled, the ships cut into pieces and, finally, the metal is shredded into a size that can be re-melted and cast into new products.
This processed metal is currently sent to Adelca’s existing plant, but will soon also go to a new plant, approved for IDB financing in May 2015. This plant will convert the ship and other scrap to new steel products in its state-of-the-art equipment including a foundry and rolling mills complete with the latest pollution control equipment. But it’s not just the equipment; it’s also about raising standards. With guidance provided by the IDB during the loan preparation, the plant will be implementing internationally recognized environmental, social, and health, and safety standards and procedures.
What’s more, these new procedures will be extended to all of Adelca’s operations, even beyond the plant being financed. This will bring up the level of environmental and social performance across the company. The IDB is also supporting one of Adelca’s flagship community programs, the “Recyclers Club.” This program works with some of the country’s roughly 3000 scrap collectors, providing protective equipment, training and small loans. This project taught me that steel can be produced from old ships and other “waste” sustainably, and the IDB can help companies like Adelca lead the way.