The Complete Guide to Sustainable Schools – From Photocopiers to Flushers

The UK Department for Education and Skills (DfES) recently published an extensive guide for bursars, head teachers and school administrators for creating more sustainable schools. Producing around 600,000 tonnes of waste a year and responsible for large levels of energy and water consumption, schools make a significant contribution to the UK’s CO2 emissions and the country’s impact on climate change. But as the DfES outlined, there are various measures, often low or no cost, which schools may implement to make major cuts to their environmental impact and achieve significant reductions to their bills. With over 30 pages of guidance however, the DfES guide might not be for everyone. Realising that time is very much of the essence for school administrators at the moment, here is an abridged guide, covering only those measures which are low or no cost and focusing on areas of greater priority.

By following some simple guidelines, schools have a chance to make a real difference to their environmental impact and create more efficient institutions with more sustainable futures. Simple steps can achieve significant energy and water conservation, cut environmental pollutants, reduce waste output, enhance the natural environment and crucially, prepare school students for a lifetime of more considerate stewardship over their natural surroundings.

Energy and Water Bills

School administrators should be aware that their bills don’t just tell them what they owe but can be a real window into understanding what exactly they’re paying for and where there may be opportunities to save.

Firstly, for any metered supplies (which would usually include gas electricity and water), an important check is to ensure that the reference number on any bills corresponds exactly to the ID number on the relevant meter casing. If the number of your bill refers to someone else’s meter (and this does occur!), you could be paying for energy you don’t use. It’s also advisable for schools to ensure their site staff take regular meter readings to cross-reference with bills and that any apparent deviations/discrepancies be raised with suppliers.

For electricity bills, bursars or school administrators should check which tariff they are on. If schools are on a day/nigh tariff, as is standard for many homes for example, they may be paying more than they should. With very little overnight energy use at most schools, a day only tariff might be a better choice. Also, in terms of billing intervals, monthly bills, as a rule, often tend to work out cheaper. Finally, what is your school’s contract status? If you’re not a contract, schools should regularly get quotes and compare costs.

For gas and oil supplies, again it’s vital to keep your own independent records. For gas specifically, as with any metered supplies, check to ensure your ID number on the meter casing is the same as on the bill. Also, be sure to conduct your won regular meter readings and cross-reference against bills. With oil, though not usually metered, again, ensure site staff regularly check the tank volume and that the volume you are paying for matches the volume change to the tank.

Water suppliers will usually charge for both the supply from the stopcock and the discharge (sewerage). Often, schools will receive two different bills from two different companies for these services. With sewerage charges based on the volume of water supplied, any leakages from the stopcock will not only result in higher supply costs but also higher sewerage charges. Good guidance is to check bills regularly and compare volumes and costs to previous bills. It may also be useful for your school to conduct a water audit, which some water companies will conduct free of charge.

Schools will usually be charged for disposal of their waste but charges may vary depending on which company is used. As with energy suppliers, get quotes from as many suppliers as possible.

With water energy and waste, as has been noted, it is always advisable to measure consumption at regular intervals and compare with bills. It’s also sensible to compare your school’s consumption with that of other schools – those in the same vicinity is a good idea. Teachernet provides a very useful online schools benchmarking tool.

Identifying Wasteful Habits

As well as ensuring you have your house, or school(!) in order with the bills, the next stage is identifying where you yourselves may be able to make changes to reduce your energy consumption and waste.

With electricity, administrators should check that lights, photocopiers, printers, scanners and PC’s are switched off or are ‘on standby’ in unoccupied areas overnight. Other simple checks… Ensure that external lights are switched off in daylight and that lights are switched off when blinds are open.

With gas and oil, check that rooms are not overheated, that hot water is not excessively hot, doors and windows are not open when heating is ‘on’ and that heating is not left on after school hours.

For water, hot taps with loose washers can switch themselves on, so ensuring school plumbing is regularly checked is absolutely essential. Excessive watering of school grounds and bad landscaping and planting is another big source of water waste and over-regular automatic flushing of urinals consumes a great deal.

One of the biggest sources of waste and one of the costliest by weight, is over-printing, be that with desktop printers or more likely all-in-one photocopiers. This is something that both teachers and students with schools are often equally guilty of. Double-sided printing can help and making greater use of email when possible.

Setting Targets

Having identified a school’s bad habits it’s essential to set targets for improvement. Briefly, targets should be measurable, realistic and time-limited.

Develop a Plan of Action

When targets have been established, a plan of action will be required. Developing some specific action points, detailing time and any funding necessary and prioritising actions points is key.

Low or No Cost Energy Action Points

  • Heating timer settings (during occupied periods)
  • Keeping to established temperatures – 18 C for normal teaching, 15 C corridors and sports and 21 C low physical activity, very young students or special needs students.
  • Reductions of just 1 C can reduce heating bills by as much as 8%
  • Switch off unnecessary lights and label switches. Keep glazing, lights and sensors clean.
  • Replace 38mm tube lighting with 26mm tube lighting which use 8% less energy.
  • Switch off ICT equipment warm-up times are accurate and clearly displayed. Properly managed kitchens can use as much as 29% less energy.
  • Seal glazing, roofs, skirting and eaves against draughts. Replace broken windows, seals and door closers.
  • Regular servicing of heating plant.
  • Service agreements on printers, photocopiers and other energy-consuming equipment.

Low or No Cost Water Action Points

  • Establish a school ‘water savers’ monitoring scheme. Remember, one drip per second equates to around 7000 litres of water a year.
  • Staff and pupils should be encouraged to turn off taps fully and not to turn taps any further than they need to.
  • Encourage garden and maintenance staff to reduce water consumption – use mulch in beds to reduce water losses and brush where possible instead of using hoses or pressure hoses.
  • Again, in lavatories, use sensor-flush urinals rather than regular automatic flushing systems.

Low or No Cost Purchasing and Waste Action Points

  • Follow the ‘waste hierarchy’ – prevent, reduce, reuse, recover and safely dispose.
  • Conduct a waste audit – assessing the sources, quantity and types of waste. How is waste currently managed?
  • Avoid unhealthy, low-nutrition and heavily packaged ‘cheap’ pack-lunch brands – such crisps, cheesey-dippy packs and un-reusable drinks containers. Children should eat healthy sandwiches or salads in reusable containers and have fruit as their snack. Apologies to obesity encouraging snack brands!
  • Kitchen staff should be encouraged to reduce waste in kitchens and compost waste where possible. This will obviously achieve savings for grounds staff and provide much healthier plants to boot.
  • Recruit school waste monitors.
  • Reuse materials from arts and crafts departments.

Engaging Everyone with Your Sustainable Activities

For maximum success, it’s vital to ensure your staff and students are fully engaged and that collectively your school receives the credit that its activities are due. Publicising and promoting achievements on the school website, on any newsletters and through student/staff awards is a good place to start. But there are independent bodies which provide awards for sustainability and environmentally-friendly activities. Eco Schools provides its own programme which schools can follow and provide internally-assessed bronze and silver awards and an externally-assessed Green Flag. Sustainable Learning helps schools manage their energy and water consumption and claims to be able to reduce utility bills by 10%. Level 1 awards are self-assessed and Level 2&3 awards are externally assessed.

Schools are clearly going through very tough times at the moment, as with much of the educational sector, under the swinging cuts from the Conservative coalition government. Many eco-friendly school building projects that would now have been in full-swing, providing vital capital investment for the UK economy, have been scrapped and so in some cases school premises which have no long-term future are being expensively repaired/maintained week-by-week, month-on-month. But even in such a debilitating atmosphere, schools have a great opportunity to take matters into their own hands. A drive toward greater sustainability can be part of process towards greater overall efficiency and can encourage that ‘can-do’ mentality in students and staff which all head teachers would be pleased to see.