Shell donates $1 million to recycle shells

Advocate staff photo by ELIOT KAMENITZ -- Oysters on the half shell get grilled at  Drago's food booth during the fourth annual New Orleans Oyster Festival at the beginning of June. Drago's will participate in an oyster shell recycling program for coastal restoration projects starting this fall.
Advocate staff photo by ELIOT KAMENITZ -- Oysters on the half shell get grilled at Drago's food booth during the fourth annual New Orleans Oyster Festival at the beginning of June. Drago's will participate in an oyster shell recycling program for coastal restoration projects starting this fall.

That chargrilled oyster covered in butter, sauce or cheese enjoyed by so many people in Louisiana could also serve a second life in promoting new oyster growth or helping to hold parts of coastal Louisiana in place.

Thanks to a $1 million donation from Shell Oil Co., a new program to start this fall will recycle oyster shells from New Orleans restaurants for future use in coastal restoration projects.

“Almost every other state that harvests oysters has some kind of recycling program,” said Hilary Collis, restoration program director with the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. The coalition is organizing the program.

Although some restaurants recycle their oyster shells and have for years, most of the oyster shells end up in the trash and then the landfill, she said.

The program is going to start off small and include one Acme Oyster House and Drago’s Seafood Restaurant in the downtown Hilton.

The Drago’s in Metairie has been recycling oyster shells for years, Collins said.

The next steps in the program will involve putting together contracts for transporting the oyster shells to a “curing” area in Buras in Plaquemines Parish. This curing area is where the oyster shells can be stacked so that the bits of oyster, cheese or other organic items on the shells can be neutralized, Collis said.

Talking with other states, the general time seems to be about six months before the shells are ready for their next life.

The volume of oyster shells collected could be substantial.

In a test at one of the Acme Oyster House restaurants, a 2-cubic-yard bin was set out to see how long it would take to be filled up with shells.

The answer was a day and a half.

One cubic yard equals about one ton, Collins said.

“A lot of this is going to require daily pickup of shell,” Collins said.

After the shells are “cured” for about six months, they will be available for use to replenish public oyster seed grounds, restoring oyster reefs and even for hatchery operations if it’s needed.

In oyster hatcheries, oyster shells are used as a base for the young oyster spat to attach to and start to grow.

Another use could be for the “living shorelines” where oyster shells are placed in a large container that allows oysters to attach. As these oysters grow, the shoreline they’re a part of grow as well, she said.

“Oyster reef-based restoration projects are very popular right now,” Collins said, and the hope is that at least some of the grant money can be used for the coalition to do restoration projects with the shells as well.

“So far, the response (from restaurants) has been incredibly responsive,” Collins said. “They looked for a way to do this but there was no mechanism to do it.”

Paul Rotner, chief operating officer for Acme Oyster House, said it was an easy choice to get involved with the program because of the importance of what shells mean to our coastline.

As a company, Acme goes through 6.5 million oysters a year and although the initial program starting this fall will only include one Acme restaurant in New Orleans, Rotner said he’d like to eventually see it expand to all the restaurants.

In addition, as the program gets rolled out, he said he would like to see other restaurants in the New Orleans area and along the coast get involved as well.

It will take more work on the restaurant’s part, he explained, because of how the shells are used and will need to be sorted.

“Half of the shell goes into our bins so that’s easy,” Rotner said. However the other half gets used for chargrilled or raw oysters and those will have to be sorted through in the restaurant to make sure other trash isn’t included.

“There will be some costs involved, but nothing we can’t absorb,” Rotner said.