Have you ever thought about what happens to the shells from a bowl of mussels or a plate of oysters?In most parts of Australia, there’s a high chance they will end up in landfill.

But for the last two years, restaurants and seafood wholesalers in Geelong, south-west of Melbourne, have been donating their shells to a local shell recycling program.

The donated mussel, oyster and scallop shells are then used to form a reef foundation, in the hope of restoring the once abundant shellfish reefs of Port Phillip Bay.

Simon Branigan from the Nature Conservancy, who is coordinating the recycling initiative, said so far the project has salvaged 300 cubic metres of shells from landfill.

“There’s much more that you can recycle than just cans and bottles. You can also recycle shells,” he said.

“In this case they have a really important use in helping to restore the lost shellfish reefs of Port Phillip Bay.”

Restoring lost shellfish reefs

When native mussels and oysters spawn, the larvae need a reef base to grow on.

But these reefs have largely been lost in Port Phillip Bay, Mr Branigan explained.

“Up to 50 per cent of Port Phillip was dominated by shellfish reefs and that habitat has largely been lost,” he said.

After a six-month weathering period, where the recycled shells are exposed to the wind and sun, Mr Branigan said they would then be placed in bulker bags and deployed into the bay to create a new reef.

The living mussels and oysters that grow on this reef also play their own part in helping the environment, he said.

“Shellfish are filter feeders, so one oyster can filter up to a bathtub of water per day. Imagine thousands if not millions of oysters in a bay doing that job.”

Local restaurants are keen contributors

Geelong’s Little Creatures Brewery have been participating in the shell recycling program since its infancy.

Alex Smith, the duty manager at Little Creatures, said the brewery had donated around 5,000 kilograms of mussel shells over the past two years.

“We’re always looking for ways to recycle and try and reduce landfill, but I don’t think the idea of putting mussels back into the ocean was something that had occurred to us,” Mr Smith said.

Mr Smith explained that the system of recycling shells was relatively easy for kitchen staff.

“We’ve got separate containers for the mussel shells and we explain to our customers not to mix food items with them because we recycle them,” he said.

“At the end of the night they get washed, put in the freezer and then they get picked up and reintegrated into the ocean.”

Disability group provides crucial transport link

Mr Branigan said the Geelong Disabled Peoples Industry (GDP) provided the crucial transport link, from restaurants to the curing site.

“Without GDP the project would have never got off the ground,” he said.

“Restaurants do not want to have smelly shells hanging around, so they pick up the shells on a regular basis.”

Tye Cummins, the production manager at GDP, said it had been a very positive experience for his team to be involved in this project.

“It changes it up for the guys, gives them something different to do, gets them out into the public, which is something they all in enjoy doing,” Mr Cummins said.

The shells would be deployed later this year to create a reef base, Mr Branigan said.

“It’s only just started — we’ve already collected 300 cubic metres of shells which would otherwise be buried under dirt,” he said.