Shell Save: Alabama’s Oyster Shell Recycling Program
Alabamians enjoy eating Gulf oysters, and Alabama restaurants enjoy serving them. But once all the delicious dining is over, piles of oyster shells are left behind. Until very recently, those shells went in the trash. Now though, thanks to the work of the Alabama Coastal Foundation, a group committed to improve and protect Alabama’s coastal environment, instead of taking up space in landfills, these empty shells are being recycled and reused as prime habitat for new oysters. Mark Berte, ACF’s executive director, shared a bit about the program.
LEAN: Explain the basics of the program.
Mark: The Alabama Oyster Shell Recycling Program is very simple, but important: Basically, the Alabama Coastal Foundation is responsible for collecting oyster shells from restaurants, which previously threw them in the trash. That vital resource is then put back into the water to help new oysters grow. Oyster shell is the preferred habitat of oyster babies (larvae) to settle on as juveniles to form oyster reefs.
In addition to food value, oysters provide many other ecosystem services, including:
- Improving water quality: An adult oyster can filter 15 gallons of water per day.
- Providing habitat: Oyster reefs provide habitat for fish, shrimp, crabs, birds and other animals.
- Limiting erosion: Oyster reefs are natural breakwaters that protect shorelines.
LEAN: When did it start?
Mark: The Alabama Coastal Foundation applied for a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant last winter to create the state’s first Oyster Shell Recycling Program for local restaurants. ACF announced that we received the grant in the summer and then used our inclusive environmental stewardship approach to form an Advisory Committee to help ensure the success of the program. We conducted outreach for Phase 1 and were able to start collecting shells at the end of October 2016.
LEAN: How will it benefit Alabama’s coast and our coastal communities?
Mark: Shells will be kept out of the trash and will go back into our local waters, which will help our local oyster fishermen, farmers and restaurants by customers coming in and eating local oysters. The shells will be put back in restoration areas to produce more oysters in the future. Our local economy is tied to a healthy environment, so this program is a win-win!
LEAN: How many restaurants are currently involved?
Mark: Six restaurants participated in Phase 1 of the grant to help us pilot the project on our Causeway Route. We were so successful that we expanded that route ahead of schedule and have added two restaurants in Mobile and one in Fairhope. In addition, we are starting Phase 2, the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Route, ahead of schedule with ribbon cuttings happening at the end of January announcing the addition of seven more restaurants. So the current number is 16, and we hope to double that number this summer.
LEAN: How many oyster shells have been gathered and recycled since the program began? (can be approximate number)
Mark: As of mid-January 2017, we have collected over 650,000 shells, which is about 11 dump trucks full of shells!
LEAN: Does anything have to be done to the shells before they are put back into the water?
Mark: Mother Nature takes care of the shells once we collect them: The shells “cure” for six months, which means they are left out to the elements so that the rain and sun make them clean. The shells are spread out and turned over occasionally by a front end loader (think turning your compost heap over). The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources will then load them on to barges and put the shell back into restoration areas.
Can individuals get involved? If so, how?
Mark: Yes! The main way people can help is to support the restaurants that are participating in the program and go eat some delicious oysters! (A list of partner restaurants is on our web site.) The more shells we collect, the more can be put back into the water. We are also asking people to help us spread the word about this amazing new program through social media by tagging ACF is their posts. In addition, we encourage people to sign up to help with outreach efforts like helping collect shells at events like The Hangout Oyster Cook-Off.