GALVESTON, Texas - Paper, plastic bottles, and soda cans are all things commonly known as recyclable. Now, add oyster shells to the list.
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After slurping down the popular appetizer, people can help the shell find a new home by restoring Galveston‘s reefs.
"We were taking the oysters and putting them into dumpsters," explains Tom Tollett, owner of Tommy's Restaurant and Oyster Bar.
More than a decade ago, patrons’ oyster shells would get tossed with the rest of the garbage.
"There needed to be some other way to save these oysters [and] do something with them," he says.
Since 2011, his Clear Lake restaurant has saved 500 tons of oyster shells from landfills.
"We’ve been able to recycle a million pounds through Galveston Bay Foundation's partnerships with other restaurants as well," adds Tollett.
Tollett helped create a local shell recycling program, partnering with the Galveston Bay Foundation to bring used shells back to the gulf's shores, rebuilding reefs and giving new homes to baby oysters.
On March 22, 2022, Texas Parks and Wildlife closed some of Galveston's oyster harvesting areas after samples revealed shrinking sizes along with an ongoing decrease in population.
"We’ve had droughts, a lot of sedimentation from events like Hurricane Ike, and then Hurricane Harvey basically turned Galveston Bay into a freshwater lake," says Haille Leija, Habitat Restoration Manager for GBF.
Through the recycling program, used shells are picked up by the foundation and stockpiled at a curing site where invasive species can also get removed.
"This also gives us a chance to quarantine or sun-cure the oyster shells," says Leija. "Essentially what that does is exposes them to all the weathering and gets rid of any bacteria or pathogens that we would not want to put back into the bay."
She points out a massive hill of oysters at their Red Bluff Road curing site.
"That’s actually about 300 tons going back into the water next month," she says. "We’re really excited about that."
After six months, the shells can be put back in the bay, also filtering water and stabilizing the coastline.
If more restaurants participate, recycling the shells from shuck to shore, it won't be their last trip back home.
The Galveston Bay Foundation says you can support the program by patronizing participating restaurants and encouraging local restaurants to sign up.
Find a list of participating restaurants and more information here.