State Oyster Reef Program Competing for Shells

Wilmington, NC – Leftover oyster shells have gone from trash to treasure as a state-run recycling program finds itself competing with landscapers for the shells.

The idea is to increase North Carolina's oyster population by dumping tons of used shells into coastal waters to form reefs for young oysters. The shells are considered the best anchors for sprat and key to reverse the state's dramatically declining oyster numbers.

But the shells have many other uses, from high-end landscaping to providing calcium for chicken feed, and that's driving up prices.

To get shells for the program, the General Assembly recently passed a dollar-per-bushel recycling tax credit for individuals and businesses and banned state agencies from using shells in landscaping or construction projects.

Even with those efforts, Sabrina Varnum, who runs the state's recycling program, says she just can't compete.

"Sometimes we don't know until it's time to plant that the shells are not available," she says, "that here's another group that's going to offer a little more money. And so we get out-bidded, and of course, we don't know until it's too late."

To make matters worse, Varnum says the shells are actually gaining in popularity as a landscaping tool.

"With more and more people moving to the coast and wanting to get that nautical feel, that coastal heritage... in their yards" they're using the shells instead of mulch, she says. "But we're trying to discourage that."

At least one Wilmington landscaper has stopped carrying oyster shells until the fall because of environmental concerns. The shells retail for around $60 a cubic yard.

Varnum says she hopes to convince restaurants and shucking houses that, in the long run, increasing the oyster population will bring in more dollars than immediate sales.

She says, "it makes sense to me for shucking houses to donate shells to the program, because it's going to keep them in business. It's just instant karma, you know?"

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