If you shuck it, don’t chuck it.
That’s the message the state’s 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 a recent 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 for transportation to the 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. The eggs attach themselves to a solid object, such as another oyster shell, and grow to full size in two to three 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 more than half from restaurants and the rest from individuals.
The Oyster Shell Recycling Program came to Johnston County in 2010. Residents can drop shells off at the county landfill, on County Home Road just off of N.C. 210.
Last Thursday afternoon at the Johnston landfill, Varnam picked up more than 3,360 pounds — 61 bushels — of oysters collected over the past year. That’s more than double the county’s output last year.
Rebecca Allen, an employee at the landfill, said the program has the potential to grow in Johnston. “The benefit of recycling these oyster shells is catching on,” she said.
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.”
Derek Quizon contributed to this article.