APEX — If you shuck it, don’t chuck it.
That’s the message the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries’ Oyster Shell Recycling Program hopes to spread with a new video it is creating to teach people how to properly dispose of oyster shells – and why.
The state program, which started in 2003, helps restaurants and individuals recycle their shells, which have been banned from landfills since 2010, and uses them to create oyster habitats in North Carolina coastal waters.
Program coordinator Sabrina Varnam hopes the new video featuring scientists, restaurateurs and fishermen will help get the message out to more oyster eaters.
On Thursday, a videographer filmed as Varnam climbed atop a pile of more than 10,000 bushels of shells – 275 tons worth – at the South Wake County Landfill, where shells collected in the county are stored.
The shells, the largest pile the program has ever collected, were loaded into three county dump trucks and will be transported to Morris Landing in Onslow County and Morehead City. From there, the shells will be loaded onto barges and dumped into the waters along the central and southern coast of North Carolina.
Since 2003, the state program has collected 185,000 bushels of shells, enough to cover 38 acres, to create new habitats for oysters in North Carolina waters. The process, called cultch planting, creates oyster reefs, the places where shellfish grow and reproduce.
An individual oyster produces millions of eggs each year, which attach themselves to a solid object, such as another oyster shell, and grow to full size in 2 to 3 years. The recycled shells “provide a natural substrate for the baby oysters to grow on,” Varnam said.
The program got a slow start, just 711 bushels in its first year. Last year, it collected 24,597 bushels, a little over half from restaurants and the rest from individuals.
The Oyster Shell Recycling Program came to Wake County in 2007, when the environmental services department began working with 42nd Street Oyster Bar in Raleigh and Tony’s Bourbon Street Oyster Bar in Cary to collect their shells. That first year, the program collected 3,016 bushels of oyster shells from two restaurants.
Since 2007, three other Wake County restaurants have joined the program: Sullivan’s Steakhouse in Raleigh, and Shuck ’Em Shack and Mayflower in Garner. In 2012, these five restaurants recycled 5,026 bushels of shells.
Wake County leads the state in oyster shell recycling, and about half of the shells, an average of 2,500 bushels a year, come from the 42nd Street Oyster Bar.
Brad Hurley, the restaurant’s owner, thinks the program indirectly helps his business because the recycled shells provide more places for oysters to mate, leading to larger populations, which is also good for the environment.
“A bigger oyster population means healthier water,” Hurley said, because oysters can filter up to 50 gallons of ocean water a day.
In 2009, Wake County also began collecting oyster shells at 11 of its trash and recycling drop-off centers, where people brought 669 bushels of oyster shells in 2012. Durham, Orange and Johnston counties also collect oyster shells for recycling.
The recycling program’s 20-minute video will be made available to community groups and schools. Varnam hopes they inspire more people to recycle their shells.
“Whether you love to eat oysters, you are a commercial or recreational fisherman, a seafood dealer, a restaurant owner who serves oysters or if you are concerned with water quality and shoreline erosion, this program affects you on several significant levels,” Varnam said. “Everyone benefits by having a healthy oyster population.”