Restaurant workers and oil company employees rolled up their sleeves one day last week and shoveled ton after ton of oyster shells into bags as part of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana’s oyster shell recycling program.

Since 2014, participating restaurants in New Orleans have discarded oyster shells into bins for the program. Five days a week, those shells have been picked up and hauled to a “curing area” in Buras, where they are stacked to let the last bits of oyster, cheese or other material on the shells get weathered off. It’s a natural process that usually takes about six months to complete.

Dickie Brennan, one of the managing partners in Dickie Brennan & Co., said that when going to a friend’s house near Shell Beach he couldn’t help noticing the piles of limestone that oystermen ship in to create spawning areas for their oyster beds.

He thought, “We have the shells; let’s put them back in the water,” said Brennan, whose employees joined Shell Oil workers Friday to shovel some of the 1,300 tons of shells collected into sacks for use on a future coastal restoration project.

Recycling the shells for use on the coast was an idea that floated around for years, but there was always the question of the cost of getting the shells from the restaurants to the coast.

A $1 million grant from Shell in 2013 answered that question, and it was a matter of just months before contracts were in place to move the shells.

Jim Germanese, with Shell, said the shell recycling program was a great opportunity for the company to join with a restoration group and local businesses.

“Like Dickie Brennan said, it makes a lot of sense,” Germanese said.

Steve Pettus, also a managing partner in Dickie Brennan & Co., said recycling the shells fits into the effort to be more environmentally friendly. However, using oyster shells for coastal restoration hits very close to home because of the impact hurricanes and the 2010 Gulf oil spill have had on the oyster industry.

“Our future lives with this,” said Jamie Munoz, general manager of the Bourbon House, a Brennan-owned seafood restaurant that has been involved in the program since the beginning.

“Who wants to go to a seafood house and not get a dozen oysters? The mindset is: If you want to keep serving oysters, we need to start saving oysters,” he said.

Munoz said that after an oyster is shucked, the shell is eventually going to make it into a bin; it’s just a matter of changing that from the trash bin to the oyster recycling bin.

What started with a handful of participating restaurants has turned into 25, which have accumulated more than enough shells to build a half mile of barrier reef next year.

The reef requires 800 tons of shells, which need to be placed in bags and then into wire containers before they can be placed along a shoreline in the Biloxi Marsh in St. Bernard Parish.

The oyster reef will be near two other similar shoreline protection projects built by the Nature Conservancy. The conservancy is conducting a test to determine what kind of living reefs are the most effective for growing oysters and slowing shoreline erosion.

On Friday, the volunteers shoveled 19 tons of shells into bags in a few hours.

Kimberly Davis Reyher, executive director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, said it could take about 30 days of such work to get the entire amount into bags and ready for the project.

“If you talk to the state biologists, you hear that shell is the superior substrate,” Reyher said.

She said the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries allows the shells to be stored on its property at a marina in Buras in exchange for 20 percent of the shells.

Other coastal groups have asked to use some of the shells for their own projects, Reyher said.

“We’re not worried about having a giant pile of shells and nothing to do with it,” she said.

Reyher hopes the recycling program will expand to more restaurants in the New Orleans area. The group also is considering expanding to Baton Rouge, but the cost of moving the shells from there would be substantially higher.

The coalition also is looking for ways to make the program more self-reliant financially instead of having to secure additional grant money to keep it going.

Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.