About 120 miles east of Washington, D.C., Delaware’s coast is dotted with quaint beach towns and miles of pretty shoreline. In the southern part of the state, a thin strip of land separates the ocean from the bays that have pushed into the mainland. As Dave Ritondo drove on this tenuous thread of land - to his right, the Atlantic Ocean, to his left, Rehoboth Bay - rain pummeled his windshield.

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Dave Ritondo calls himself the 'oyster shell picker upper." In the summers, he make trips twice a week to collect discarded oyster shells from area restaurants. (Irina Zhorov/The Pulse)

“This is like the mailman, rain or sleet or snow, regardless, right?” Ritondo mused. “We gotta do our job.”

When he pulled up behind a restaurant in touristy Rehoboth Beach, he quickly headed to a line of trash bins set against a fence. The containers were filled with oyster shells and when he lifted the lids a pungent stale sea-smell rushed out. He loaded the bins into his truck and replaced them with clean barrels.

In the summer, Dave makes this trip twice a week to 16 area restaurants, picking up hundreds of pounds of shells.

He hauled his cargo to a small clearing in a state park, and dumped the shells atop a pile already more than five feet high. Three such piles spilled out of their holds.

They’re evidence of our love for oysters. Ritondo’s weekly trips are part of an effort to make that love more sustainable.

Shells love shells

“If you look at the piles, you know, it used to be a buck a shuck was a good thing,” said Bob Collins, the program manager for a conservation group called the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays. “If you looked here, you’d get an idea of what the oyster business at the beach is here, how much money it’s worth.”

In the U.S., people eat about 60 million pounds of oyster meat per year. That translates to even more pounds of oyster shells that end up tossed into a landfill.

Along coastlines from the Chesapeake Bay to the Gulf Coast, efforts have popped up to keep these shells out of landfills.

The Center started one a few years ago.

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Volunteers pack shells into netted bags using a specially designed table. (Irina Zhorov/The Pulse) 

Volunteers from a local restaurant group, SoDel Concepts, are packing the shells from one of the piles into netted bags. 

Their restaurants participate in the shell recycling program so the shells they’re packing could very well be coming from their businesses. 

As she works, Shannon Colburn, general manager of one of the SoDel restaurants, say in the summer the restaurant sells more than 1,000 oysters per night. In the winter, they host oyster nights and sell about 600. “So we’re putting a lot of shells back,” she said.

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Volunteer Shannon Colburn helped bag oyster shells, to be placed back in the water. At the restaurant where she works, more than 1,000 oysters are sold per night in the summers. (Irina Zhorov/The Pulse) 

The bags of shells will eventually be placed back in the water. There, they’ll protect shorelines from storms and function as reefs.

Oysters are keystone species, which means they play a critical role in maintaining biodiversity in the ecosystem and in cycling and cleaning the water.

“It’s documented in the inland bays that there are 49 other beneficial species that are attracted to oyster reefs,” Collins said.

The shells will serve as habitat for this sea life, much like a natural oyster reef. The sea life the reef supports will filter and clean the water. Oysters, for example, can filter about 50 gallons of water per day.

“Oysters, clams, mussels, they all filter, they all like [to grow on] other shells, that’s really important for them to grow. And what we’re doing is we’re taking a waste product that would otherwise end up in a landfill, repurposing it into a product that’s going to help improve our water quality,” said Collins.

Local oysters 

A front loader dumps shells onto a table with holes, like a whack-a-mole machine, but with netted bags under the holes. The volunteers quickly get to work. 

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Volunteers from a restaurant group helped pack shells into bags. Some of the volunteers said they hope the shells, which will serve as habitat for other sea life, will help keep the bay waters clean so that a local oyster industry may thrive. (Irina Zhorov/The Pulse)

“The reason we bother is so that we can have a quality oyster at our back door,” said Doug Ruley, the Vice President of SoDel Concepts. 

For the first time in decades, Delaware has opened about 350 acres of its bays to people interested in starting commercial oyster beds there. That’s good news for restaurants.

“Cuts down on travel time, cuts down on a lot of expenses, if it’s two miles from our restaurant that makes it all worthwhile,” Ruley said. Currently, they source oysters from Maine to Virginia.  

Kris Medford, another one of the volunteers, ties up bags and throws them to a colleague, who stacks them on a pallet. The pile grows taller under the freezing rain.

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Volunteers packed hundreds of bags of oyster shells. The bags will be placed back in the water to serve as reefs for sea life. (Irina Zhorov/The Pulse)

“We don’t have any Delaware oysters at the moment, but hopefully they’ll be my favorite in a couple of years.”