North Carolina Adds Oysters to Its 'Banned From Landfills' List

North Carolina's ban was implemented to prevent oyster shells from being discarded in landfills because there is a high demand for these shells as building materials for oyster reefs. Photo: Flickr/littleREDelf

Just when we thought we had heard of pretty much everything to recycle, from golf balls to crayons and antifreeze to hotel keys, we found yet another oddity: oyster shells.

Though not recycling in the traditional sense of the word, this one deserves an honorable mention in the reuse arm of the recycling trio.

One of the most aggressive states for landfill bans, North Carolina has added oyster shells to the list of materials outlawed for landfill disposal, joining the likes of plastic bottles and aluminum cans.

Under North Carolina General Statute, the ban was implemented to prevent oyster shells from being discarded in landfills because the shells are in high demand for oyster reef construction.

The declining oyster population in North Carolina, as well as the health of the coastal ecosystems, is a serious issue for a state that heavily relies on commercial oyster farming.

Oysters filter harmful pollutants and sediment and form habitable reefs to many aquatic species. Their values are often called the “Three F’s:” food, filter and fish habitat. A single adult oyster is capable of filtering 15-35 gallons of water each day! Who knew?

Oyster shells provide the best habitat for living oysters, which actually begin life as free-floating organisms, to grow and populate. A mound of oyster shells placed in brackish water can quickly become colonized with oysters and other marine organisms, benefiting the ecosystem and a sustainable fishing program.

Shells can be brought to designated county landfills, restaurants and consumer locations for recycling, with taxpayers awarded a $1 state tax credit per bushel of shells. Operated by the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries (NCDMF), the State’s Oyster Shell Recycling Program collects shells from individuals and businesses and places them back in the coastal waters to build “oyster reefs.”

The North Carolina Coastal Federation works with researchers, NCDMF and shellfish harvesters to create oyster habitat and build oyster reefs. Since 1998, more than 20 acres of oyster habitat have been created or restored along the coast and more than 80,000 bushels of shells have been dumped thanks to the recycling collection programs.

Read more

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  1. The NC Oyster Shell Recycling program has collected over 113,000 bushels ( tons) of discarded shells (oysters, clams, conchs, mussels, and scallops) since the fall of 2003 when the program was launched.
    We have 118 public recycling sites and 60 restaurants to date covering 22 counties. You can visit the website for those locations. These locations now include inland counties like Wake, Orange and Durham. Majority of shells collected have come from restaurants (oyster bars) 46%. Public contributions 29% and festivals 5% (large oyster roast functions) continue to grow. In 2005-2007 a shucking house donated a small percentage which contributed 20% to the program’s total volume.
    If anyone would like more information about the NC Oyster Shell Recycling Program, please visit our website or you may contact me at 252-808-8056.

  2. What is the cost per ton to recycle oyster shells (transportation and labor included)? What is done to decontaminate the shells to avoid spreading pathogens for which shellfish provide an excellent culture? We have a lot of oyster production here in Louisiana and the benefits of a program as this is of interest.

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