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Recycling Mystery: Oyster Shells

Recycling Mystery: Oyster Shells

More than just a popular seafood delicacy, oysters play a big role in global ocean health. Recycling oyster shells is important for future generations of oysters, helping to ensure not just a food source but also natural diversity and a healthy ecosystem.

The small shellfish have a tremendous ecological value in making our waters healthier. As it feeds by pumping water through its gills, a single oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons of water a day, removing excess nutrients, sediments, and other contaminants. Their reefs provide habitat for fish, shrimp, crabs, and other sea life while controlling erosion of surrounding shorelines.

They are also prolific reproducers. Adult oysters release millions of fertilized eggs in the summer months. During their development, young, free-swimming oysters may travel great distances from where they were originally released, but they need one vital component in order to survive: the shells of their ancestors.

Why It’s Important to Recycle Oyster Shells

The concept may sound strange, but in order to reach full maturity, young oysters must attach themselves to a hard substrate — ideally another oyster shell. If no suitable surface exists, the young oyster will die.

In areas where oysters have grown freely for generations, this is just another part of the circle of life. But the waterways where oysters are harvested have been faced with oyster shortages because of a lack of empty shells and hard surfaces for young oysters to call home.

The Billion Oyster Project in New York Harbor aims to restore historic oyster reefs to the state they were over 400 years ago and bring back habitats for thousands of other species in the process. The project is using reclaimed and recycled oyster shells to help oysters thrive. Thriving oysters can help filter nitrogen pollution from the water. So far, the project has restored 75 million live oysters to the region.

A growing number of coastal communities are setting up recycling programs to recover spent shells and reintroduce them to local waterways as natural habitats for the next generation of shellfish.

taff bagging some of the 1,750 tons of oyster shell reclaimed by Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana’s Oyster Shell Recycling Program
Mississippi River Delta staff bagging some of the 1,750 tons of oyster shell reclaimed by Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana’s Oyster Shell Recycling Program. Image: mississippiriverdelta.org

How Are Oyster Shells Recycled?

After being picked up from local recycling points, oyster shells are washed and set outside to cure for several months before being used as habitats for the next generation.

Some states simply reintroduce cured shells into local waterways in reef formations to encourage natural propagation of young oysters. Recyclers in other areas, such as the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and Virginia, place shells in tanks with millions of oyster larvae — where baby oysters are allowed to mature before being reintroduced into the wild.

When doing your part to recycle, be sure to take your shells to an official drop-off location; do not put spent shells into local waterways. To avoid contamination of waterways, the organization doing the restoration will properly quarantine the shells before introducing them into natural habitats.

Additionally, do not put live oysters back into waterways. South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources warns that is illegal if the oysters you bought hailed from another state, as imported oysters may cause health problems to local oysters and other marine life.

The North Carolina Oyster Shell Recycling Program collects oyster shells to help rebuild the state's oyster population.
The North Carolina Oyster Shell Recycling Program collects oyster shells to help rebuild the state’s oyster population. Image: Reefs.com

Where Can I Recycle Oyster Shells?

A growing number of nonprofit organizations — such as the Oyster Recovery Partnership and Billion Oyster Project in the Northeast and the Galveston Bay Foundation in Texas — have set their sights on seafood restaurants to maximize shell collection. Many coastal communities also offer residential shell-recycling programs.

In North Carolina, where oyster shells are banned from landfills, you can visit the North Carolina Coastal Federation website or contact your local waste program to find oyster shell recycling collection points near you. In South Carolina, visit the Department of Natural Resources for drop-off locations or check out SCORE‘s interactive map of recycling locations

Communities in Massachusetts, Maryland, Louisiana, Texas, Florida, and Virginia have also set up recycling programs and public drop-off locations for oyster shells.

Shell recovery programs are on the rise in the U.S., so if you live in a coastal community but no program exists near you, keep an eye out for one in the near future. It likely won’t be long before you can recycle your oyster shells.

Feature image: rob791 / PixabayOriginally published on October 14, 2013, this article was updated in December 2021.

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