Case study: Victorian primary school saves thousands of dollars by managing sustainability data

St Therese Primary School in Torquay is saving resources – environmental and financial – by closely managing its environmental data.

“We’ve saved at least $20,000 since our sustainability journey started,” says Gerard McCarthy, who became the school’s first Sustainability Coordinator in 2009.

His position (allocated half a day per week) was created when the school signed on to the ResourceSmart Schools initiative. Gerard says having half a day in the week to devote to his Sustainability Coordinator position during school hours has made “a massive difference” to what he can achieve.

“The creation of a position of leadership around sustainability has helped educate our students and families about becoming more sustainably aware – which is enormously important to us,” says Pauline Audley, principal of St Therese Primary School. She said the position had also generated significant financial benefit for the school, with the savings covering the associated salary many times over.

Gerard has been able to use the school’s environmental data to quantify its dollar savings and environmental impact, producing regular reports for the principal and the wider school community. He uses the data to rank the school’s performance, encouraging staff and students alike to make sustainability a priority. “It informs us about our behaviour,” he says. “You can’t argue with hard data.”

The importance of allocating time

Anthony Mangelsdorf is the ResourceSmart Schools Coordinator for the Barwon region and he is responsible for guiding St Therese Primary School through the program. He says some schools struggle to keep their environmental performance data up to date, “It can be difficult when teachers are juggling too many things. It’s important to allocate the time as it saves time and money in the long run.”

Measuring the savings of sustainable action

St Therese has drastically reduced the amount of waste it sends to landfill – by over 80%. This is due to a range of measures, including increasing composting and recycling, promoting the school’s rubbish free lunch program (where students are encouraged to bring food without packaging to school each Friday), and minimising paper usage – by reducing printing and photocopying and introducing electronic newsletters.

“This means we’re spending less on removing rubbish from the site,” says Gerard. He has been able to quantify it through the school’s online account. As of February 2013, the school had saved about $2600 on rubbish removal since 2009. During the same four year period, it saved about $9300 on paper and printing costs.

Sharing data shares the responsibility

Creating a culture where sustainability is taken seriously is key to St Therese’s success.

The teaching staff have a code to enter into the printer or photocopier before they start their job. Gerard keeps track of the individual and overall output and circulates the results in regular emails to all staff. He says that when paper costs recently and unexpectedly rose for the first time in four years, he was able to put pressure on staff to do something about it – because he had the figures.

Relating student learning to ‘real life’ data

Sustainability awareness is not confined to teachers. The school’s Student Sustainable Action Team have introduced rubbish free lunch day each Friday, where students are asked to keep their lunches package free.

Students weigh their own classroom bins once a week and use Excel to graph their findings. Each classroom teacher is given a copy of the results so they can see how students in their year level perform against others in the school. Results are displayed around the school, and there are awards for the best performing year levels and classrooms. During the first weigh-in the students worked out by comparing the weight of the bins on a normal lunch day and on a rubbish free lunch day, that they could potentially save 27.5 kg of rubbish per week and 110 kg of rubbish per month.

“When we see the graphs we want to be the best class with the least rubbish,” says Tom, a grade four in the Student Sustainable Action Team. “We don’t want to send the most rubbish to landfill.” Gerard says exercises like this give the students context. “What the students are seeing they directly influence. That’s the best way to teach – relating what they’re learning to real life.”

He also involves students by getting them to help enter data into their online account, which provides a wealth of real life numbers and scenarios to use in the classroom – especially when teaching maths and literacy. He says this really helps with lesson planning, as it saves time that would otherwise be spent constructing imaginary learning scenarios.

Saving money by identifying problems early

Monitoring water, gas and electricity bills can have unexpected advantages, as Gerard found.

Looking at the data, he noticed that the school’s electricity bills had jumped $12,000 within a year, with no obvious explanation for the jump.  Armed with the numbers, Gerard contacted the school’s energy supplier and discovered they had been placed on an incorrect rate.

“Because we were recording it, we knew that something wasn’t right and by investigating it we realised we were paying a lot more than we should’ve been. Having that data allowed us to keep tabs on what we were using and what we were being billed.”

“The online account has helped St Therese to organise its record-keeping more efficiently,” says Gerard. “It makes it easy to go back and look at records from years ago. Resolving issues becomes much quicker.”