Being bounced around the cab of a big-footed diesel work truck was the last place I thought I’d meet a certified sommelier and chef, but that’s precisely where restaurant veteran Dan Worrell and I spent one Wednesday in January.
Worrell is one of two full-time employees who spend upwards of 50 hours each week schlepping smelly, discarded shells for the Oyster Recovery Partnership’s recycling program. Started in 2010, the program works 340 Chesapeake Bay-area raw bars and restaurants to recycle the oyster, clam and scallop shells that would normally be tossed into the trash—and then a landfill.
As it turns out, this trash is a treasure. The shells are perhaps the most reliable surface on which larval oysters like to settle, making them ideal for building oyster reef structures, or for growing oysters for aquaculture or oyster restoration efforts.
“Of all the surfaces available to us, we find that properly prepared oyster shell is the best substrate on which to grow oysters,” says Stephanie Tobash Alexander, the manager of Horn Point Lab Oyster Hatchery in Cambridge, Md. Shell from the Oyster Recovery Partnership’s recycling program accounts for about 20 percent of what the lab uses each year, according to the partnership’s operations manager, Tommy Price.
Worrell starts this particular day in downtown Annapolis, in an open loading zone where he can park the truck.
“It’s not feasible to drive from restaurant to restaurant,” Worrell says. “They’re all relatively close together, so I bounce from restaurant to restaurant and back and forth to the truck, picking up shells, loading them onto the truck, and then redistributing empty cans to each restaurant.”
He wrestles with countless pungent barrels through the back alleys. “It’s hard work, but I love it,” he says. “It dovetails nicely with the professional oyster shucking and oyster restoration advocacy I do.”
The most challenging part of the job, he says, is getting used to the smell of the decomposing bits still stuck to the shells. “July and August can get pretty interesting, especially when I am hauling a full load,” Worrell says.
I get a sense of what he is talking about when Worrell dumps a 5-gallon bucket of oysters into a larger barrel. Along with the oysters are lemons, globs of cocktail sauce, bar tabs, silverware and stainless-steel ramekins. It’s not difficult to imagine this concoction going ripe in warm weather.
Once he’s finished with downtown rounds, Worrell points us across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Bridge toward a transfer station in Grasonville, Md. It’s here where the Oyster Recovery Partnership “ages” the shell for a state-mandated period of 12 months—enough time for all the nasty bits to decay, and for oyster diseases such as dermo to die off.
“About a year from now, these oysters will be bleach white and ready to go,” Worrell says. “Once they are properly aged, they’ll get trucked to the Horn Point Lab in Cambridge.”
Last year, the program collected nearly 36,000 bushels of shells from 340 restaurants around the Chesapeake. That’s 2.5 million pounds of shell that went to use restoring oyster beds instead of clogging landfills.
“I’m helping oyster restoration and making oysters a sustainable choice for consumers,” Worrell says. “It makes me feel good knowing I’m making a difference.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue.