Oyster shell is a valuable resource in the state of North Carolina. It is used by the federation, N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries and others to build new oyster reefs.

To get the material that is needed, shells are often bought from shucking houses and delivered to project sites for $2-3 per bushel.

A recycling program provides an alternative way to collect the shells that may otherwise be improperly disposed of. This type of program gives both restaurants and private consumers a chance to return their shells to the water.

From 2003 to 2013, the state of North Carolina ran a state-funded shell recycling program. Through the program the Division of Marine Fisheries provided centralized drop off locations, the collection and transportation of shells from restaurants, festivals and oyster roasts and the maintenance of dumpsters. From 2013 to 2018, they ran a scaled down program with limited grant funding that provided drop off locations for collecting the shell. While operating, the program provided 6-15% of the needed material for restoration activities. Unfortunately, due to budget cuts and a reduction in staff, as of 2018, all state-run oyster shell recycling centers have been removed in North Carolina.

Recycled oyster shells become a home to baby oysters. In a few years, mature oysters can be harvested. Photo by Mary Beth Charles

A few counties, municipalities and organizations have stepped up to fill the void. Shells can be brought to a limited number of collection points along the coast.

Northeast Region

The federation stepped in to develop a pilot program, Restaurant to Reef Oyster Shell Recycling, in the northeast region. For the past three years, 10-15 volunteers at a time have worked to pick up shells from four participating restaurants – Blue Water Grill & Raw Bar, Sugar Shack, Coastal Provisions and Awful Arthur’s – and deliver them to two public drop off points in Dare County. The frequency of collection varies seasonally, increasing in the busy summer months and slowing down during the winter. Impressively, in two months, the volunteers collected over 2,500 5-gallon buckets, or 800 bushels, of shell. The benefits of this program include opportunities for community engagement – both with volunteers and local restaurant owners, while serving its environmental purpose of returning the shells to the water where they will make important oyster reefs. For more information on this program click here.

The development of the Restaurant to Reef program has opened the doors for partnerships with local governments, parks and businesses. The Kill Devil Hills Recycling Center serves as a drop off point. They generously transport shell to the oyster shell stockpile in Wanchese at no cost. Jockey’s Ridge State Park has also offered to continue serving as a drop off point with hopes of expanding storage capacity in the upcoming year.

The federation also assists with shell recycling for both public and private oyster roasts. Supplies, volunteers and staff are available by request to simplify the recycling process.

The federation plans to continue this program and is actively seeking new volunteers and interested restaurants to participate in the Restaurant to Reef oyster shell recycling program in the Outer Banks. For more information please contact Leslie Vegas at lesliev@nccoast.org.

Southeast Region

In the southeast region, staff are partnering with several local governments and other partners to provide public oyster shell drop-off locations. The New Hanover County Environmental Management Department is generously providing two rehabbed dumpsters for shell collection and they are transporting and emptying the dumpsters at the shell recycling and stockpile site at the county landfill. The Town of Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach State Park are hosting the shell collection sites. Brunswick County and Onslow County are providing free shell recycling sites at their landfill. Airlie Gardens in Wilmington also offers a shell recycling station at its front gate. The Town of Holly Ridge is partnering with the federation to maintain a shell recycling site at the Morris Landing Clean Water Preserve.

Waterman’s Brewing co-owner, Don Weber, taking the time to recycle shell and sort out the trash

Staff are working with additional local governments and businesses to set up a few more collection sites throughout the region. In the near future, the federation hopes to partner with a private waste hauling company and some restaurants to design and test a pilot program to service restaurants that handle a significant amount of oysters.  Some restaurants are already recycling shell on their own, like Shuckin Shack, Wrightsville Beach Brewery and Waterman’s Brewery. The federation also has a small number of shell recycling barrels available for loan for large oyster roasts.

All the collected shell will be stored at stockpile sites, including Morris Landing on Stump Sound, and will be deployed into region’s estuaries to build new oyster reefs. For more information, please contact Ted Wilgis at tedw@nccoast.org.

Did you know?

In the state of North Carolina, it is illegal to dispose of oyster shells in landfills or use them as mulch for landscaping since they are needed for reef building in our sounds.

Oyster Shell Drop-off Sites