DC Refined: Recycled Half Shells Do a Whole Lot of Good

Reserve shell at the Queen Anne's County Transfer Station in Grasonville. Credit ORP-small

From DC Refined by Lani Furbank:

“Designated bins for plastic, glass, aluminum and even compostable materials are commonplace in homes, businesses, and public places, but for all the sorting we do, one very valuable waste product is still frequently tossed in the garbage.

The Oyster Recovery Partnership’s (ORP) Shell Recycling Alliance (SRA) formed in 2010 to save oyster shells from ending up in landfills. “It’s starting to be recognized that oyster shells are a commodity. They’re not something you should throw in the trash,” says Tommy Price, the operations manager for SRA. Price and his team make weekly visits to restaurants, caterers, and other organizations to collect empty oyster shells and turn them into real estate for future oysters.

Oysters are a vital member of the marine ecosystem – Price calls them the kidneys of the Bay. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), a single oyster can filter 50 gallons of water per day. “In addition to being living water treatment plants, as oyster reefs grow they provide homes for about 300 different plants and animals that are important to the Bay, including young crabs and fish,” explains Jackie Shannon, the manager of CBF’s Oyster Restoration Program.

Oysters’ shells are a crucial part of rehabilitating oyster reefs and rebuilding populations of this keystone species because shell is the best material for raising new oysters and building new reefs. When oyster larvae reach a certain stage in their development, they look for a hard substrate to attach to while they grow a new shell. Naturally, the best substrate is gently-used oyster shells.

The Process

Price manages a small team that collects shells once a week from over 300 establishments in Maryland, D.C., and Virginia. They pick up SRA collection bins filled with empty shells and transport them to one of two shell piles in Maryland.

Courtesy of the Oyster Recovery Partnership

The empty shells need to age in the sun for about a year to completely dry out and sanitize, and they are periodically turned over with a front-end loader. After they’ve aged, they are put through a giant tumbler called the shell washer. This cleans the surface of the shells to ensure they are dirt-free and ready for the oyster larvae.

Courtesy of the Oyster Recovery Partnership

Next, the shells are poured into large stainless steel cages and are placed into tanks of water on a pier on the Choptank River. From here, the University of Maryland’s Horn Point Oyster Hatchery takes over.

Courtesy of the University of Maryland Horn Point Hatchery

The Horn Point Hatchery raises oyster larvae in their laboratory until they have grown an appendage called a foot that allows them to crawl around and adhere to hard surfaces. The oysters are then placed into the tanks to find a shell. Each shell can accommodate about ten baby oysters.

Microscopic view of newly attached oyster spat on shell. Courtesy of the University of Maryland Horn Point Hatchery.

Microscopic view of newly attached oyster spat on shell. Courtesy of the University of Maryland Horn Point Hatchery.

Once attached, the larva becomes a spat, which is about the size of a pepper flake. The spat now focus their energy on sequestering calcium carbonate from the water to grow a new shell. When they’re strong enough to hit the open waters, the spat on shells are loaded onto a boat and transported to an oyster sanctuary on the Choptank River, where they are blasted overboard with a fire hose. The shells and their residents settle into their new environment and will eventually form a fully-functional oyster reef for wild oyster larvae and other marine life to inhabit in the future.

Courtesy of the University of Maryland Horn Point Hatchery.

Courtesy of the University of Maryland Horn Point Hatchery

The Players

When the SRA launched, 22 restaurants in the Chesapeake Bay region signed on as members. Now, they have over 300 members, making it the largest shell recycling network in the country.

This is partly thanks to the demand from the region’s oyster-lovers, and the dedicated chefs and restaurant staff who save shells to be collected and recycled. The largest contributor of shells is the Old Ebbitt Grill, which shucks around 3,000 oysters per day. Noaman Derokshanrokni, the purchasing manager at Old Ebbitt, says the program is like second nature for the kitchen crew. “All we have to do is just shuck the oyster and save the shells. I give all the kudos to everyone that is involved with the Oyster Recovery Partnership because they’re the ones that actually have to do all the work.”

Read the rest of the article and see the full photo gallery here!