Diners have consumed enough oysters in New Orleans this year that tons of recycled shells from the seafood delicacy will help build a half-mile oyster reef south of the city this fall.

The Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana’s Oyster Shell Recycling Program got a dozen of the city’s restaurants to separate oyster shells they would normally discard and instead put them in recycling bins. The bins have been picked up five days a week, at no cost to the restaurants, and the shells shipped to a curing site in Buras.

So far, about 800 tons of shells are sitting in Buras awaiting final engineering and design on a project to build an oyster reef along a shoreline of Lake Athanasio in St. Bernard Parish, said Hilary Collis, the coalition’s restoration program director.

The reef-building project is being done in cooperation with the Nature Conservancy. The conservancy has its own existing reef projects in the area, but they use different techniques. One uses stacks of concrete blocks, while another employs metal cages filled with oyster shells.

Both methods are meant to provide a solid place for young oysters to attach and help protect the marsh shoreline behind it, said Seth Blitch, coastal program director for the Nature Conservancy.

The restaurant shells project “will let us look at how bagged shell performs compared to what we’ve already got out there,” Blitch said. “It’s a great way to show that part of the way to keep a reef healthy is to return shells to the reef they were grown on.”

In the last five years, the Nature Conservancy has built about 4.5 miles of reef shoreline, primarily in southeast Louisiana and Vermilion Bay.

“LSU is doing the monitoring on it, and it looks like we’re getting some good growth,” Blitch said, adding that it probably will take a few years of study to compare the different oyster reef techniques.

The shell recycling program, which started last year, is offered free to restaurants in the New Orleans area thanks to a $1 million donation from Shell Oil Co. The money is enough to cover another 18 months of collecting shells.

“Prior to this, (shells were) lost to landfills and thrown away,” Collis said.

The 12 New Orleans restaurants involved in the program are Acme Oyster House in New Orleans and Metairie; the Bourbon House; Redfish Grill; Peche Seafood; Felix’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar; Lüke; Pier 424 Seafood Market; LeBayou; Drago’s in New Orleans and Metairie; and the Royal House.

As the oyster collection continues, the coalition and the Nature Conservancy are working on the design of the oyster reef and planning how to get volunteers involved in the construction later this year.

“It’s just a way for the community to get engaged in the restoration process,” Collis said.

She said the coalition is looking to get Baton Rouge restaurants involved by determining how many restaurants would be interested in participating and what amount of shells they would produce.

Any restaurant in Baton Rouge interested in getting involved in the program is asked to call Collis at (225) 767-4181.

Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.