WILMINGTON, N.C. — The United States produces about 500 million pounds of concrete each year used to build and maintain roads, bridges, and other structures. But concrete is also the largest source of construction waste in the country.
Now, tons of that concrete are being diverted from the landfill and is being used to help our oceans.
“You look around and you know, these places are pretty special,” said Jordan Byrum, the Artificial Reef Coordinator for the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries.
He’s talking about the beaches along the North Carolina coast, the beaches he’s spent his career protecting.
“Anything that we can do to preserve them or conserve them is something that I think should be done,” said Byrum.
Byrum has been behind dozens of reef creation projects, but his latest is building new reefs using concrete pipes that would otherwise be thrown away.
“Concrete pipe is a very commonly used reef material. They don't contain your contaminants or oil or grease anything like that's going to pollute the environment. They're also inexpensive, which is a great, a great deal,” said Byrum.
Sometimes, the concrete is free. Millions of tons of concrete pipe are thrown away every year by transportation departments across the country. Byrum also works with concrete manufacturers, and any pieces that aren’t perfect and might get discarded, he uses for reef projects as well.
“Marine life grows on the concrete really, really well, and it's kind of a win-win for everybody.
These new concrete reefs will bring fishing opportunities to areas that need it and protect the shoreline when storms come in.
“They'll actually reduce some of the wave action that's up next shorelines and reduce erosion or prevent erosion,” said Byrum.
All these reefs, both natural and man-made, make a huge impact. The U.S Geological Survey estimates reefs in the U.S. save Americans $1.8 billion by stopping flooding damage.
Reefs also generate thousands of jobs and $100 million each year for the tourism industry—through things like fishing trips and diving excursions.
“Putting materials at reef sites ultimately benefits all of these communities and the economies that occur within these communities because of just the sheer number of people that come here to visit,” said Byrum.
In recent decades, more than half of living coral reefs around the world have shrunk or have been damaged. That’s why these artificial reefs are so important.
In the last few years, Byrum and his team have created dozens of reefs along the east coast—even sinking a Coast Guard ship to create a reef. It’s been so successful, people can now fish at the reef.
“Knowing we put something in the water and other people can go and then enjoy that and utilize that. It's really nice,” said Byrum.
He’s now helping other states across the country start their own reef projects like this because by giving new life to tons of trash, it will build something we can all treasure.