Across New York City, more than 70 restaurants are tossing their oyster shells not into the trash or composting pile, but into the city’s eroded harbor. It’s all part of Billion Oyster Project’s restaurant shell-collection program.
The journey from trash to treasure begins after an oyster half shell is turned upside down and left on an icy tray. Once discarded, it joins hundreds of thousands of other half shells collected in blue bins and picked up (free of charge) from restaurants five days a week by Billion Oyster Project’s partner, The Lobster Place, a seafood supplier. The shells are trucked over to Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood and once a month are brought en masse to Governors Island in the heart of the New York Harbor, just yards away from both Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. There, rolling shell hills sparkle in the sun while “curing” out in the elements for one year, a process that rids them of contaminants.
The shells then get a final cleaning and are moved to Billion Oyster Project’s hatchery at the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School, a public high school on Governors Island that offers technical and vocational training in the marine sciences. In an aquaculture classroom’s hatchery, student-grown oysters produce larvae in an artificially induced springtime environment. In one to two weeks, each larvae grows a “foot” — a little limb covered in a kind of natural glue — and then is moved to a tank full of the “cured” restaurant shells, which serve as anchors for all of those sticky feet. This phase is critical: If larvae can’t find a place to attach, they die. One reclaimed shell can house 10 to 20 new live oysters, depending on shell size.