Oyster shells from a French restaurant in Williamsburg, VA, are collected weekly, destined to return to the waters where they originated.

The pilot recycling program is designed to keep oyster shells out of landfills and to put them back in rivers to help restore habitat for the shellfish and other marine species.

Shells are needed for oyster larvae to attach to and thrive. When they are harvested without being replaced at an equal rate, suitable habitat declines.

Tommy Leggett, with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the group is trying to get several more Hampton Roads restaurants involved and to get a public drop-off program started for homeowners or anyone who hosts an oyster roast. “It’s no more effort than when the homeowner separates newspaper and cans and bottles,” Leggett said. “It’s about a change in behavior.”

Chef Daniel Abid is owner of Le Yaca, one of the first restaurants to join the recycling program. He serves only native Chesapeake Bay oysters and hopes to continue offering them.

“Number one, the oysters are very tasty,” he said. “Number two, why throw them away when it doesn’t take much effort to save them? Hopefully, we’ll keep having oysters down the road.”

Leggett picks up the shells once a week. The shells are stored in piles for months so that any clinging bacteria die before the shells are placed in the water.

The foundation plans to build a reef near the Virginia Institute for Marine Science in Gloucester Point—using just the shells collected from Le Yaca—in a shallow water area where visiting school groups can see up close what an oyster reef looks like.

The bigger issue is finding enough oyster shells for large restoration projects.

Oyster-shucking houses generate the most shells, which often are sold for construction projects as fill. Virginia buys some shells each year to go back in the water for oyster habitat.

Gloucester Seafood, a seafood processor in Gloucester County that produces thousands of bushels of oysters annually, has given the foundation a standing offer to take as many shells as are needed, company President Hale Delavan said.

While Delavan said processors could sell shells for about $1.50 a bushel, he sees the foundation’s program as promoting future oyster growth in the region’s waters.

“The long and short of it is they need oyster shells,” Delavan said. “The logic there is pretty simple. I’ve got 10,000 bushels sitting outside.”