By Haley Frederick
Pittsburgh Current Managing Editor
A Maryland-based program to take restaurants’ oyster shells to the Chesapeake Bay for restoration efforts has made its way west to Pittsburgh, thanks to Sustainable Pittsburgh and the Oyster Recovery Partnership.
“Pittsburgh is the first city in Pennsylvania to have restaurants joining the Shell Recycling Alliance,” says Joylette Portlock, executive director of Sustainable Pittsburgh.
Six restaurants have joined in on the efforts since November, collecting their oyster shells in the name of sustainability and rehabilitation. The current participants are Eleven, Merchant Oyster Co., Muddy Waters Oyster Bar, Off the Hook, Spirits & Tales and St. Clair Country Club.
Together they’ve recycled 559 bushels, or 19 tons, of shell since Pittsburgh’s collection started.
“Oyster shell recycling is a great step for restaurants looking to be more sustainable,” Portlock says. “Sustainability is a comprehensive, ongoing effort to support healthy residents, build vibrant communities and advance environmentally responsible practices.”
Originating in Maryland in 2010, the Shell Recycling Alliance is now the largest oyster shell recycling network in the nation with nearly 350 seafood businesses participating and 70 public drop-off sites throughout Maryland, Washington D.C. and Virginia.
The expansion to Pittsburgh was made possible in part by grant funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“If you’re looking at doing restoration, oyster reefs are the key,” says Stephan Abel, executive director of the Ocean Recovery Partnership. “They’re like the coral reef of the Chesapeake Bay, they’re critical to all of the marine life—crabs, striped bass, other fish—they all conjugate around these oyster reefs.”
Oyster populations have suffered in the Chesapeake due to historical overfishing in the late 1800s, when Baltimore became the hub of the American canning industry and the bay supplied the world with oysters. The population was depleted even further in the mid-1900s when the bay was hit by two difference oyster-specific diseases.
“The hope is that we want to bring back specific tributaries that are conducive to restoration to populations last seen 50 to 100 years ago,” Abel says.
The oysters that are served in restaurants today are almost always sustainably farm-raised and thus do not harm wild populations. But, the shells are not commercially compostable. So the collection serves two purposes—keeping them out of landfills, as well as supporting the health of the Chesapeake Bay.
The shells that the Oyster Recovery Partnership collects through the Shell Recycling Alliance are aged outdoors for about a year, washed, set with spat (also known as baby oysters) and planted in protected sanctuary sites where they can grow into water-filtering reefs.
But before they make their way to Maryland, the shells have to be collected and stored at restaurants, which can seem like a tricky situation when they’re used to throwing them away.
Smell is a concern.
“Oysters aren’t necessarily dry and clean,” Abel says.
The participating businesses are given airtight barrels to keep it all contained until pickup time. They just need a bit of space to store them.
Jessica Lewis, the Executive Chef at Spirits & Tales who helped launch the initiative in Pittsburgh, says that the little bit of extra effort is doable and, at the end of the day, definitely worth it.
“For us it’s really about instilling a culture among the people that work for us that we’re doing the right thing,” Lewis says. “I think a lot of people now want to eat at places and be associated with doing the right thing and being sustainably aware.”
Lewis says there’s not a big financial impact to the restaurants involved. There is no cost to participate in the program, though restaurants may see some cost savings through the offset of waste.
“The embrace of sustainable practices in the restaurant industry has grown tremendously over the past four years, in part due to our Sustainable Pittsburgh Restaurant Program,” Portlock says. “Restaurants have sent their shells to landfills, but now there’s an infrastructure set up for them to have the shells recycled for good use.”
And, Portlock says, it is part of Sustainable Pittsburgh’s mission to create the infrastructure that makes the right thing to do the easy thing to do.
Since it’s announcement, more restaurants have reached out about participating, and they believe it will continue to grow as other businesses realize how this simple change in behavior can impact the environment.