Pearlz Oyster Bar in the West Ashley section of Charleston accepts all the usual major credit cards. You can see a sticker signifying that on the door. But what means more to many of its customers is the other sticker on the entrance ─ the one indicating that Pearlz participates in a collaborative Oyster Shell Recycling Program backed by The Nature Conservancy of South Carolina.
“Our customers love it,” said Mike Spinelli, the restaurant’s general manager. “We also advertise that we are part of the Sustainable Seafood Initiative (which promotes the use of local or sustainable seafood sources in South Carolina restaurants). Those who pay attention notice and appreciate what we are doing.”
The pilot project, launched in October 2009, brings together the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Fisher Recycling LLC, and the College of Charleston as partners working with Charleston-area restaurants to keep discarded oyster shells out of landfills and, instead, return them to the ocean, where they can be put to good use restoring endangered reef systems.
An environmentally conscious consumer in his personal life, Spinelli recycles at home and teaches his seven children to do the same. In fact, his children are more likely to correct him should he occasionally forget.
“There is more awareness now than ever. The schools have done a good job of educating them,” Spinelli said. “I don’t think I could look any of my children in the eye and throw something in the trash can.”
Previously, Pearlz had explored recycling oyster shells but without success.
“We looked at different scenarios to try and recycle oyster shells. For some reason, we always had trouble with the transportation and pick-up of the shells,” he explained. “It was particularly problematic during the summertime. When the shells sit there for a long time, they don’t smell so good.”
So the restaurant, a member of the TBonz Restaurant Group, limited its recycling to glass and other common recyclables, contracting with Fisher Recycling, founded in 1992 by Chris Fisher.
“Last year, Chris approached us about this new program,” Spinelli said. “It was kind of a perfect fit because our restaurant already had service with them.”
Historically, oyster shells have been difficult to reclaim for reef restoration, forcing DNR officials to import, at considerable cost, about 40,000 bushels of shell every year from Texas and North Carolina. This project is the first coordinated effort to target local restaurants as a source for oyster shells.
“Oyster shells are an essential ecosystem in our marine environment,” explained Joy Brown, marine restoration specialist with TNC-SC. “This project will allow us to reduce the amount of shell brought in from out of state that is used to replenish the oyster population in South Carolina.”
In the first four months of operation, the project garnered 48,500 pounds of shell from seven participating restaurants.
“If you’re going out to eat oysters,” Brown said, “look for a decal or ask whether the restaurant recycles its shells. Try to patronize participating restaurants because they are voluntarily devoting time and money to this effort.”