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Shaler Area students turn single-use coffee containers into tiny planters

| Monday, March 30, 2015, 3:42 p.m.
Shaler Area High School ecology club members Claire Schreiber, ninth grade, left; Meghan Harris, ninth grade; Sara Magoun, 10th grade; and Sean Phillips, 10th grade, fill single-use coffee cups with plant starter soil and seeds to start seedlings in the school’s greenhouse as part of the GATE program’s Fairchild Challenge project.
Two-week old seedlings in the Shaler Area High School greenhouse that were planted in recycled single-use coffee cups. The high school GATE students took on the task of recycling more than 3,000 of the cups to create seedling planters and compost for the Fairchild Challenge.
Shaler Area High School ecology club members and GATE students Sean Phillips, sophomore, left; Meghan Harris, ninth grade; Claire Schreiber, ninth grade; and Sara Magoun, sophomore, hold up their two-week old seedlings in the school’s greenhouse. The students planted cabbage, lettuce, swiss chard, mustard greens and peas.
Recycled single-use coffee cups sit in the greenhouse waiting to become planters. Breaking down a cup to remove the foil lid and compost the coffee grounds and paper filter inside takes about 30 seconds.

Little green seedlings are sprouting up in Shaler Area High School's greenhouse, but this year they're popping up in some unusual containers — single-use coffee cups.

The high school gifted-education students collected the coffee containers used in Keurig coffee makers to recycle them in their greenhouse, gifted-education teacher Christina Palladino said.

The students collected 3,607 of the cups through the month of February, which makes for about 182 pounds of trash that was not put into landfills, Palladino said.

“What we had anticipated was getting 500 or so,” she said. “So we kind of exceeded expectations.”

Palladino said students grow close to 2,000 seedlings each year in the greenhouse for the North Hills Community Outreach and Garden of Etna. Instead of purchasing the planting trays for the seedlings, Palladino and the GATE students looked for an environmentally friendly way to plant their seeds this year.

The single-use coffee cups are perfect for seedlings, Palladino said. They already have a hole punched through the bottom of the container, which is where the brewed coffee drains out, so the seedlings can drain.

The cups had to be broken down before they could be used as planters. The foil top on the cup has to be peeled off, said sophomore Lindsay Kirin, who helped break down the cups. Then the paper filter and leftover coffee grounds are scooped out and placed in a container to become compost for the gardens.

All in all, one cup takes about 30 seconds to break down, Kirin said.

“I thought it was fun to do,” Kirin said.

Students from the school's ecology club planted the first round of seeds three weeks ago. They planted cabbage, Swiss chard, broccoli, mustard greens, lettuce and peas, students said.

The students also will use the cups to make garbage-disposal cleaners by mixing coffee grounds, baking soda, Epsom salt, vinegar and vanilla, gifted-education teacher Katie Elder said. The garbage-disposal cleaners will be sold to faculty and staff members.

The cups are recyclable, but the recycling number the plastic cups are marked with is unusual and not every municipality takes them, Palladino said.

The cup-recycling project is part of the Environmental Action Challenge for Fairchild Challenge, put on by Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens each year. The Fairchild Challenge is a series of yearlong projects that encourage students to do activities in their schools, communities or homes that promote ecology and environmental science, Palladino said

Freshman Joshua Greiff, who helped count the collected cups, said the project was a great idea to help the environment, even in a small way.

“It's a really creative way to be more caring to the planet because these things are just piling up in landfills,” Greiff said.

Rachel Farkas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6364 or

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