Oyster shells from Atlanta restaurants are helping save the Georgia coast

Restaurants like Kimball House and Miller Union give oyster shells to Shell to Shore, a nonprofit that recycles the shells to help restore Georgia coastlines

Oyster shells from Atlanta restaurants are helping save the Georgia coast
With SOLO’s Maurice Bailey, Shell to Shore loads its first cured oyster shells onto Sapelo Island in 2021.

Photograph courtesy of Rinne Allen

Hunt Revell realized that oysters are more than just slurpable happy hour treats when he taught high school in New York City. A Georgia boy, he remarked to his coworkers that he grew up eating oysters all the time, to which they replied, “‘Yeah, but we like them because they filter 50 gallons of water a day, and they’re good for the marine habitat, and oyster reefs can help with storm surge, flooding, and erosion, and we think they’re a great sustainable food source,’” recalls Revell. “I was like, Whoa, okay, that’s a whole ’nother level of love for oysters.” This stuck with him when he moved back home, and in 2021 he cofounded Shell to Shore, an oyster shell recycling nonprofit, in hopes of restoring Georgia’s shorelines.

The opportunity to found Shell to Shore presented itself to Revell and a few folks he worked with at Seabear Oyster Bar in Athens when he came across a grant through the Nature Conservancy’s SOAR (Supporting Oyster Aquaculture and Restoration) program. “It was enough to get us going, which was basically to buy a truck and get enough people who were interested to use the truck to pick up shells from the restaurant,” says Revell.

Revell turned to his neighbor Nik Heynen, a geography professor at the University of Georgia, to get the organization off the ground. Heynen facilitated a collaboration between Shell to Shore and Save Our Legacy Ourself (SOLO), which preserves the Saltwater Geechee culture on Sapelo Island through agriculture. The oyster shells collected from restaurants are cured (i.e., left in the sun to kill off any biological matter they harbor) for six months on a farm in Athens before they’re transported to Sapelo Island. There, they bolster Sapelo’s shoreline in flood-prone areas.

Shell to Shore’s roster of restaurant sources includes Kimball House, Miller Union, and Steamhouse Lounge, in addition to restaurants in Athens. “We kind of go to restaurants with the attitude of ‘What can we do to make this the smallest lift possible for you? How do we set this up so it’s not a pain in your neck, so you’ll keep doing it?’” says Revell. They haul about 2,000 pounds of oyster shells every other week, and they’re hoping to increase their frequency this year. Additionally, they aim to broaden their reach along the coast.

Working on this project has brought Heynen a new appreciation for oysters. He had only ever eaten a handful, but working with Shell to Shore and SOLO piqued his interest in the bivalves. He even volunteered at Seabear to improve his shucking skills. “Yeah, I’ve had a very intense growth curve with oysters,” says Heynen. “I love eating them and love being around them now in a way that I didn’t ever imagine.”

This article appears in our February 2024 issue.