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Tina Casey headshot

New York Water Conservation Project to 'Enthrone' Oysters With Recycling

By Tina Casey

In one of the more unusual water conservation initiatives in recent memory, New York City and its Department of Environmental Protection plan to install one gigantic oyster bed along with four smaller satellite beds made partly of crushed toilets. Yes, those thrones.

Oysters are well known for their ability to filter copious amounts of water, and 50,000 of the industrious bivalves will be ensconced in the main bed to help boost water quality in the city's Jamaica Bay.

Inefficient old toilets repurposed for oysters

Some of Jamaica Bay's newest residents will get the royal treatment, all right. The four smaller oyster beds will be made of a mix of empty clam and oyster shells along with pieces of porcelain. That sounds rather fancy, although to be clear it's not exactly Limoges-grade porcelain.

The porcelain is coming from another water conservation project in New York City also managed by the Department of Environmental Protection. That one involves removing old, inefficient toilets -- aka porcelain thrones -- and other fixtures from public schools around the city and replacing them with more efficient models.

The project has been a booming success and there is much more to come:

"... 10,000 new, high-efficiency bathroom fixtures have been installed at 129 public school buildings throughout the five boroughs which has resulted in an approximately 70 percent reduction in water use at each of the buildings, saving more than 1 million gallons of water each school day," the city said in a press statement.

"Work will continue on additional schools with the goal of reaching 500 buildings, and roughly 40,000 bathroom fixtures by 2019, resulting in an estimated 4 million gallons of water conserved each school day."

That's a lot of porcelain! The four small oyster beds will only use about 5,000 toilets, so if you know anybody else who could use some porcelain give DEP a call.

Two kinds of oyster beds

The new water conservation project actually has two components. The main component is a "donor" bed consisting of 50,000 adult oysters along with "spat-on-shell" oysters.

Spat refers to oyster larvae that are attached to a surface. Spat-on-shell means the surface is another oyster shell. The use of spat provides some extra punch to the project. Spat-on-shell is a promising method for raising oysters that was successful in the Chesapeake Bay. The new project will give researchers a chance to test it on a large scale in New York, in addition to relying on the more conventional adult method.

When the oysters (adult and spat) are old enough to reproduce, their fertilized eggs will float in the water column and grow into free-swimming larvae.

The larvae can swim around for two or three weeks, but if they don't find a hard surface to attach to, they will die.

The hope is that between the donor bed and the four receiver beds, the larvae will have plenty of options. They can attach themselves to another adult oyster in the donor bed, or a piece of porcelain or empty shell in one of the receiver beds.

If all goes well, the beds will be self-sustaining.

Water conservation, oyster style

As one may assume, the new water conservation project will be rigorously monitored for water quality indicators including temperature, pH, salinity, conductivity, turbidity, dissolved oxygen and chlorophyll.

The monitoring is also designed to ensure that researchers have a better handle on just how efficient oysters are at removing pollutants. They do take in an enormous amount of water -- 50 gallons per oyster daily, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Along with pollution control, oysters can provide other important environmental benefits. NOAA offers a key snippet relating to the Chesapeake Bay oyster restoration project:

"Oysters are filter feeders, consuming phytoplankton (free-swimming algae) and improving water quality while they filter their food from the water. As generations of oysters settle on top of each other and grow, they form reefs that provide structured habitat for many fish species and crabs."

NOAA also provides a nifty infographic that sums it all up:


The new oyster beds are the largest installed so far in New York. But as far as oyster-based water conservation projects go, it's just a big drop in an even bigger bucket.

The new project partners DEP and New York City with something called the Billion Oyster Project, an initiative of the New York Harbor Foundation. Like the name implies, BOP has the goal of creating 100 oyster reefs around New York Harbor, which are expected to house 1 billion oysters by 2030 (that's 1,000 million for those of you keeping score at home).

BOP has already spun out some interesting partnerships of its own. One involves reclaiming empty shells from New York City restaurants:

"... New Yorkers eat up to half a million oysters in local restaurants every week," the company says on its website. "Those shells are restoration gold –  but they’ve been treated as waste and shipped to distant landfills.

"... Our Shell Collection Program reclaims this natural resource and prepares it for reuse. Shells are shuttled to the NRG Arthur Kill Generating Station where they will cure for a year before being reintroduced to the Harbor as cultch and reef substrate ... "

If you have trouble visualizing all that, here's an assist from BOP:

If you own a New York restaurant and want to sign on to the project as a BOP Partner Restaurant, just fill out a handy form and you're in.

The project also dovetails with the efforts of sustainable seafood advocates in and around New York City.

Images: 1) NYC DEP via flickr; 2) NOAA; 3) Billion Oyster Project




Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey