Oysters are a Lowcountry treasure and have been for centuries. Thousands of succulent oysters land on lunch and dinner plates daily in local restaurants and homes. Oyster roasts are popular social events.
But what happens to those thousands of shells after the shucking and plucking and eating? They've been used in ancient ritual shell rings on the island, long-ago tabby structure ruins and decorative accents in today's homes.
"Within the state of South Carolina, the amount of harvestable oysters has dropped dramatically," said Dr. Jean Fruh, executive director of the Outside Foundation, a non-profit organization that's dedicated in part to preserving and protecting the local environment. "In the last 100 years, we've lost 90 percent of the harvestable market."
Less than 15 percent of harvested oyster shells make their way back into the ecosystem, creating a critical shortage to replenish supply, she noted.
More oyster consumption amid a declining inventory presents a clear and present danger to the sustainability of this shellfish.
"We have a critical shortage of shucked shell, and it is a preferred substrate when it comes to baby oysters attaching," Fruh said. "When oysters spawn, they release millions a day; (the offspring) have 21 days to float around and find other oyster shells to attach to."
More oyster beds means more habitat for babies, which means a healthy life-cycle environment for this shellfish delicacy and the industry.
"We want to rebuild beds and renourish beds and help with our shoreline," Fruh said. "There's lots of need for that kind of restoration."
"What's neat about oyster shells, compared to other recyclable materials, is that in the Lowcountry, they're very personal," said Mike Bennett, owner of i2 Recycle, a recycling and hauling business he founded in 2011. "Everybody understands that this is a longstanding industry here."
Fortunately, there has been a groundswell of support to recycle the shells as an environmental firewall and nurturer of embryonic oyster growth in Lowcountry waters.
Sea Pines Resort had embarked on an ambitious "greening" campaign years ago and added the recycling of oyster shells from five of its restaurants and its catering kitchen about five years ago.
"We're in it for nature, but we also have to plant the seed or we can't harvest," said director of facilities services and sustainability Tony Wartko.
Fruh is the acknowledged leader for pushing forward the oyster shell recycling movement.
On behalf of the Outside Foundation, she submitted an application for an environmental grant to Patagonia, the giant outdoor clothier. The foundation received a $9,015 grant last year, and Fruh spearheaded the Oyster Recycling and Reef Build Initiative in June. When she realized there was no oyster recycling dump site on Hilton Head, she had one built at Honey Horn and began recruiting local restaurants to participate.
i2 Recycle, which has partnered with Sea Pines for three years, counts another 10 restaurants on the island for its weekly oyster shell hauling, Bennett said, including CRAB, SERG and the Westin hotel. Overall, i2 Recycle collected 1.14 tons from the 10 restaurants from mid-November to mid-December, while Sea Pines produced 7.79 tons from January through November last year, a 324-pound weekly average.
Bennett and his team haul the oyster shells to the dump site at Honey Horn, where they are unloaded and quarantined for six months to be cleaned of bacteria and other contaminants.
Volunteers then bag the sanitized shells for placement along waterfronts for reef restoration, erosion prevention and enhanced water quality.
Fruh said this year's goal is to better educate the public.
Dean Rowland is a veteran senior editor and freelance writer.