For Immediate Release: May 3, 2022

Contact: | (215) 380-9327 

Partnership for the Delaware Estuary and Philadelphia Water Department Cut Ribbon at New Shell Recycling Area


PHILADELPHIA — When you go into a Philadelphia restaurant and order oysters, do you ever wonder what happens to the empty shells? 

Thanks to agreements between Partnership for the Delaware Estuary (PDE), the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD), and local restaurants, some of those shells will now be recycled back into the environment, helping improve local water quality.

PDE and PWD cut the ribbon this spring on the City of Brotherly Love’s first official shell recycling area. The large industrial lot, located on the PWD Southwest Water Pollution Control Plant grounds, will be a depository for used shells that will be integral in environmental projects throughout the Philadelphia metropolitan area and the Delaware Estuary. 

So far, two Philly restaurants have shell recycling agreements with PDE, and the program is looking to add more in the near future.

How It Works

PDE provides the restaurants with special recycling bins where their staff can deposit the used shells from oysters. PDE staff picks up the shells at least once a week and takes them to the shell recycling area. From there, the shells “cure” for about six months before staff and volunteers bag the shell for use in shoreline restoration and oyster reef rebuilding projects. 

PDE already has a shell recycling operation in Wilmington with six restaurants participating. Over the course of six years, PDE has recycled more than 140 tons of oyster shells in Delaware. The larger recycling area in Philadelphia will help the organization expand its collection of shells to be used in shoreline and reef restoration programs, which benefit water quality and fish and wildlife habitat. 

Baby oysters grow best on other oyster shells. Oysters, along with mussels and other bivalves, help to filter impurities out of our waterways. An adult oyster can filter as much as 20 gallons of water per day, so the bigger the oyster bed, the more capacity it has for cleaning a waterway.

“Oyster shell is an amazing substance that helps stabilize erosion, is vital for reef maintenance, and provides lots of nooks and crannies for other small fish and animals,” says PDE’s Senior Science Director Danielle Kreeger, Ph.D. “Since shells are in short supply locally and across the United States, expanding this shell recycling program will alleviate one of the biggest bottlenecks of our projects to curb shoreline erosion, rebuild oyster reefs, and promote clean water via enhanced shellfish populations.”

The arrangement underscores the benefits the City can achieve through collaborating with organizations like PDE, which works to improve watershed health in Philadelphia as well as throughout the Delaware River watershed. While only a small percentage of the watershed is within the City’s jurisdiction, water quality in the river is a critical issue for all Philadelphians, making partnerships an important tool for protecting drinking water sources.  

“This is a win-win situation for the City of Philadelphia and the Water Department. You are taking what would be tons of waste going into landfills and instead recycling it to do good right here in local waters. Turning these shells from waste into living shellfish reefs is something that will actually help improve water quality and create wildlife habitat in the Delaware River and the estuary,” says Lance Butler, Senior Scientist with the Philadelphia Water Department Office of Watersheds. “That is a really powerful and positive contribution, and it’s also an opportunity for businesses and their patrons in Philadelphia to contribute to the health of the watershed. We can take this effort and engage people and have them learn about this ecosystem and the people and organizations working to protect and improve it.”

Restaurants that serve fresh oysters who would like to work with PDE’s recycling program should contact Habitat Projects Coordinator Sarah Bouboulis at