The Importance of Recycling Oyster Shells

Going by the “R Rule,” we’re in the thick of oyster season.  And to catch anyone up who’s never heard of such a rule, any month that includes the letter “r” is typically considered oyster season. We won’t get into the nitty gritty of farm-raised, year-round oysters either, we’ll save that for another time.

Here in the Lowcountry, oyster season parallels the time of year when the weather gets cooler, making outdoor events and activities much more enjoyable.  Oyster roasts and other food festivals seem to take over the calendar, suddenly giving way to the holiday season—another busy time and cause for celebration and community gatherings.  

Photo by Charlotte Harrison


Oysters have been at the root of our coastal communities for centuries.  Historians have observed that the indigenous groups that inhabited areas such as Hilton Head Island not only relied on oysters as a main food source, but used them as tools and for trading purposes.  Fast forward to a booming industry throughout the sea islands that sold canned oysters, and to generations of residents and visitors who up until today can see oysters on an abundance of restaurant’s menus.

It’s easy to only think about oysters being beloved as an appetizer or in a po’boy, but their importance far exceeds the plate garnished with a lemon and tabasco sauce.  Oysters act as an important filtration system for the waters they’re in, removing contaminates and excess nutrients. One oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day. The clusters of oysters, often called oyster reefs, serve as homes to many different fish species. The reefs are also known to absorb waves, helping with erosion control.  And with all that being said, oysters help coastal economies other than just sale of oysters alone.

Photo by Clint Patterson


So, what would happen if one day oysters suddenly disappeared? We’d be in big trouble.

We’re certainly not at that point, but populations have been declining throughout the United States.  While oysters in South Carolina are still considered abundant, evidence that human activities have affected the populations negatively. These activities include a myriad of things, but the more oysters are taken out of the waterway, there are less shells for oyster larvae to attach to for the oyster to continue to live and ultimately go on to reproduce.  The shells have been used by many generations for a wide array of reasons from construction, agriculture, and more.

Photo by Robert Linder


The Department of Natural Resources started SCORE (South Carolina Oyster Restoration and Enhancement Program) to help restore the state’s oyster habitats.  Recycling oyster shells is key in rebuilding reefs, while awareness of the importance of oysters is also a top priority.

Before you start throwing your old oyster shells back into the water, please know that there is a months-long process to cleaning and returning shells back into waterways to rebuild these reefs.  If you do find yourself with shells left over from a dinner party or oyster roast, you can drop them off at designated recycling centers throughout the area. To find the closest one nearest you, use this interactive map provided by the DNR.  

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Oysters–A Lowcountry Legacy

A guide meant to intrigue both self-proclaimed oyster experts as well as novices who know next to nothing about the delicious bivalves. 

4,000-Year-Old Lowcountry Favorite 

If you’ve ever visited Hilton Head Island or surrounding Lowcountry towns, you know that the strong prevalence of oysters in the area’s history not only influence local menus, but quite literally are seen within the walls of historic buildings and on the grounds of ancient hunter gatherer societies. 

Oysters are found within shell-rings and mounds dotting the southeastern coastline dating back to at least 4,000 years ago. The reason why Native Americans on the Sea Islands created shell-rings, such as the Sea Pines Shell Ring and Green’s Shell Ring, is still unknown, whereas shell mounds are assumed to be middens, or waste sites that include discarded shells and bones. Historians believe these societies not only harvested oysters for food, but used their shells for tools and trade items. 

The trend of finding other uses for discarded oyster shells continued with early settlers who received grants from England to harvest oysters along the territory’s coastline. Agricultural uses included grinding the shells to supplement chicken feed as well as used as fertilizer, a technique George Washington was said to have used for his crops.  

Oyster shells also proved helpful in construction. Tabby became a popular building material in the Lowcountry because of the abundance of oyster shells in the area. Burning the shells to make lime, they then added whole shells into the lime, sand, and water mixture to create what’s known as coastal concrete. Beaufort County has the most tabby ruins in the United States. What’s left of the Stoney Baynard plantation house located within the Sea Pines property is a great example of tabby ruins on Hilton Head Island. 

An example of using tabby as a construction method at historic Stoney-Baynard Ruins.

Oysters were enjoyed by all classes and residents of the Lowcountry. The diet staple was recommended to be enjoyed at home—that is of course until refrigeration became widely used. Oyster roasts quickly became a Lowcountry tradition that still serve as significant social and fundraising events every season. 

Commercialization of the oyster industry took off with shucking houses and canning. New technology and ice helped ramp up sales and gain more customers, allowing more and more people to enjoy the delicious local oysters. 

The Old Oyster Factory, a restaurant with extraordinary views and delicious dishes, is located on what used to be an oyster cannery on Hilton Head Island. During your next trip to the island, do yourself a favor and stop by for lunch or dinner!

Crassostrea Virginica—the Eastern Oyster 

There are five types of oysters that may be found in the United States, and out of those five, our local oyster is called Crassostrea Virginica, or the Eastern Oyster. As you might assume, each type of oyster differs depending on the environment they’re found in. As far as the oysters in Beaufort County go, their briny sweetness is considered some of the best you’ll ever taste!

Remember the “R” Rule

The local oyster season officially runs from September to April. 

The official rule of eating oysters states that you should only indulge in oysters during a month that includes the letter “r”. During the summer months the waters are warmer, becoming the perfect time for oysters to spawn. Restaurants that offer oysters year-round may source from farmers located in colder waters or have different cultivation methods that allow for safe consumption. However safe they may be to eat, spawning typically makes the oyster more watery and less flavorful than they’d be in season. 

Prioritize Freshness 

If you’re planning on hosting an oyster roast or serving them at an upcoming holiday meal, the best time to buy them is either the day of or the day before. If you need to store them overnight, ensure that you keep them alive and in an open container with a wet towel over top. This will keep the oysters from drying out. Speaking of hydrated oysters, check for oyster liquor—the official name of the natural juice found inside.

Incorporate Oysters in your Thanksgiving Dinner 

There are many ways to serve oysters, and what better way to incorporate them into your Thanksgiving dinner than in one of the tastiest side dishes? Try this recipe from Bon Appétit for the ever-delicious BLT Oyster Stuffing

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