Whether they’re served on trays of ice or chargrilled, the shells from the oysters you have for dinner at select New Orleans restaurants may soon end up serving a new role along the Louisiana coast.

This fall, the nonprofit Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana is set to begin its Oyster Shell Recycling and Reef Restoration Program to funnel used shells from restaurants to local waterways, where they can help build up new oyster reefs or become material for coastal restoration projects.

“Some restaurants have been recycling (shells) independently for years, but this is the first formal program of its kind in the state to return the shells to the environment where they can be beneficial,” says Hilary Collis, the coalition’s restoration program director.

Shell Oil Co. (Yes, the name is ironic.) is funding the effort with a $1 million grant, and it will begin this fall as a pilot program involving two New Orleans restaurants: Drago’s Seafood Restaurant and Acme Oyster House. The restaurants will collect their used shells, which will be transported to a stockpile area in Plaquemines Parish to be “cured” through sun exposure and readied for eventual distribution back into the water.

Oyster shells make ideal material for maintaining and expanding oyster beds, Collis says. That is good for oyster harvesters, and also for the coast, since healthy oyster reefs can help purify water and reduce the impact of storms.

Similar programs are commonplace in other states but have been lacking in Louisiana, which leads the nation in oyster production and is responsible for consuming quite a lot of them, too.     

“Since Louisiana provides one-third of the nation’s oysters, it’s good to see that we’re finally starting a recycling program,” Collis says. “Everyone has wanted something like this to happen here, but it needed the impetus to really get it going and the new funding provided that spark.”

While the program is starting relatively small, Collis believes it has the potential to grow across Louisiana.

“The outpouring of support and interest from the restaurant community has been huge,” she says. “The restaurateurs realize that without a healthy coastline and without our oyster reefs a lot of what we have here just won’t be sustainable.”