It’s essentially a return to an age-old practice. “We’re not coming up with something new,” says Darrah Bach, who manages the CRCL’s oyster shell recycling program. “But we’re providing for a system that worked beautifully for a long, long time.”
Louisiana is uniquely suited for oyster shell recycling. The state produces more oysters than anywhere in the US – an industry of both wild harvested and farmed oysters that makes up 50 percent of the nation’s supply. The Louisiana Department of Health estimates that 1.3 million oysters born of Louisiana’s shores are consumed each day across the country.
The recycling process begins with a plate of oysters set in front of a customer. After the oysters have been enjoyed and the plate has been cleared, the shells are discarded and sent to the curb in color-coded trash cans that indicate they will be sent for recycling. Pickup takes place three times each week; CRCL uses a tiered fee to determine the cost for restaurants.
Upon arrival to the program’s shell dumping grounds, oyster shells are washed clean of grease and other substances by volunteers, and then cured in sunlight to remove additional pathogens that might later harm the region’s vulnerable coastal ecosystems. From there, the shells are ready for their return to the sea to build reefs.
The CRCL tracks the growth of the five reef projects it’s completed since 2016 through technology like satellite and drone imagery. The nonprofit estimates that the projects have allowed for 50 percent less coastal erosion in those same areas since the reefs’ introduction.
Oyster recycling has proven to help preserve cultures, too. Among the CRCL’s oyster population restoration projects was the 2019 construction of a 400-foot reef for the Pointe-au-Chien Tribe, who have lived along the Louisiana coast for centuries. With the help of hundreds of CRCL volunteers and roughly 200,000 pounds of recycled oyster shells, the south Louisiana tribe was able to protect one of its historic burial mounds that had become vulnerable to coastal erosion’s lapping threat.
The impact of oyster recycling has even caught the attention of Louisiana lawmakers. A state law recently went into effect that provides tax incentives for restaurants taking part in oyster shell recycling, either through the CRCL’s long standing effort or other programs.
Even so, in an era of rising seas and climate crisis, living shorelines can only protect against so much. That includes the same oyster populations that, in part, bring these shorelines to life. Globally, up to 85 percent of wild oyster reefs have been reduced due to the deterioration of water quality, overharvesting and introduction of disease, according to researchers. In North America, the health of roughly 64 percent of reef habitats has decreased in recent years.
The Florida Gulf’s Apalachicola Bay is a prime example of a growing ecological tension felt everywhere. In the early 2010s, the bay was declared a federal fishery disaster due to loss of oyster population; until 2025, Apalachicola Bay is under a wild oyster harvesting moratorium.
In November of 2022, Texas enacted moratoriums on wild oyster harvesting in three of its bays.
In the Atlantic region’s Chesapeake Bay, the wild Eastern oyster has reached a critical population level; the local species has been estimated at just 1 to 2 percent of its population’s peak.
In each instance, ecological loss has in turn led to loss of economy for thousands of fisher-folk.
As a result, oyster harvesters lose their connection to the sea, says Imani Black, a shellfish aquaculture biologist and founder of Minorities in Aquaculture, which provides women of color access to the field. Without that connection, Black says, “ecological knowledge stays with the past, it doesn’t move forward, and it doesn’t evolve in ways new innovations and new ideas in the future can provide.”
By contrast, oyster shell recycling combines traditional conservation with modern science, even if it is only a minor fix for a problem at the scale of Louisiana’s coastal erosion crisis. (That sense of urgency is the driver behind the state’s 50-year, $50 billion Coastal Master Plan — a legislative wish list that uses oil spill funding for large-scale restoration.)
But for CRCL, the benefits of oyster shell recycling go beyond restoration. When locals volunteer to help, program manager Bach hopes it deepens their sense of intimacy with the local environment: “That activity is critical to getting them engaged with, feeling a personal connection to, and taking further action to participate in climate solutions.”