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Posted January 10, 2010

A Success Story Well Worth Repeating

Ecological reforms, new practices save energy,
cash at Oregon school

By Ed Langlois
Catholic News Service

PORTLAND, Ore. (CNS) -- An Oregon Catholic school is turning its century-old campus into a lean, green sustainability machine.

At Holy Redeemer on Portland's north side, students joined volunteers and teachers in a project to dig up 2,500 square feet of old playground pavement. That exhausting effort will allow rainwater to soak into the ground and nourish newly planted native vegetation, as opposed to washing blacktop-borne pollutants into streams and the nearby Columbia River. Another newly uncovered area will be a 7,500-square-foot community garden.

Pavement-busting is just one of dozens of efforts at ecological reform at the 100-year-old school, which serves a racially diverse neighborhood.

"We're doing what we can to bring the school into the 21st century," said John Baggenstos, facilities manager at Holy Redeemer for the past two years. "Of course, there isn't much money. You're either rich or creative, I guess."

Baggenstos and a committee of teachers and parents are continuing a drive for ecological advances that began with construction of a new classroom building in 2005. Pope John Paul II Hall, which includes a library and science lab, was the first K-8 Catholic school building in the nation to win certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Across campus in the lunchroom, an effort to reduce waste caught students' attention starting last year. After training and a set of incentives -- free dress passes and some sweet treats -- the youngsters took only a week to cut noontime trash from seven cans per day to one. Now it's a habit.

The difference is avid recycling, composting and the use of washable plates and silverware.

The new lunch policies have slashed Holy Redeemer's total solid waste output -- and the bill for hauling -- by about a third.

"It's harder, but it's good," said eighth-grader Palmer Smith.

Anna Raineri, Holy Redeemer's principal, began sending out the multi-page parent newsletter on e-mail two years ago. Hard copies dropped from 275 to 40. That saved great stacks of paper.

Baggenstos said that at first, the efficiency measures were meant to save the school some money. Though the scheme now has an altruistic character, it's still good for the bank account.

Among other measures, blue recycling bins are now set next to copy machines and alongside every waste can. That keeps trash volume down. The number of plastic bags used at Holy Redeemer has plummeted since classroom garbage is emptied once per week (or when needed) instead of daily.

Students and teachers are urged to turn off lights whenever possible and every other light fixture in hallways has been shut off.

Baggenstos and volunteers disconnected half the downspouts from the church and school last year, keeping the flow out of the aquifer and cutting storm water bills by 38 percent.

New controls on the heating system monitor hours of operation and temperature more closely, resulting in an expected 10 percent savings on heating oil.

Big environmental jobs at Holy Redeemer are getting done with the help of grants. The pavement tear-up was paid for by a Portland watershed program, which also will fund a system to divert rainwater from the gym roof to the garden, which will provide produce to needy neighbors.

Funds from Oregon Electric Group and Energy Trust of Oregon will pay for installation of 375 solar voltaic panels on the roof of the school and gym. That will generate about half of the school's electricity and after a five-year period, any unused electrical power can be sold back into the grid with funds coming to Holy Redeemer.

Raineri said the broad sustainability initiative has strong support.

"We started thinking it was time to be more conscious of the gifts God gives us and be good stewards," she said.