Sustainability makes both ethical and financial sense, according to Queensland aged care provider Carinity, which is trying to turn nursing homes’ poor reputation on its head with a more engaging, nature-focused experience.
The company has taken a comprehensive approach to sustainability, ranging from energy efficiency, powering facilities with solar, cutting fleet fuel emissions and reducing waste through to taking a lifecycle analysis approach to equipment procurement, Carinity’s executive manager business and development Peter Lamberth says.
It’s part of the charity’s strategic plan to enable it to care for “as many people as we can”, he says.
Currently, it has around 800 aged care residents across 11 sites in both urban and regional Queensland locations stretching from Townsville to the Gold Coast.
It also owns and operates seven retirement communities totalling about 300 occupied units, four schools that cater for about 320 students who have “fallen through the cracks” of the mainstream system such as young sole parents, day respite facilities for people with disabilities, youth accommodation and counselling services.
Sustainability across all these facilities and services is about being socially responsible for lessening the organisation’s impact now and for future generations, Lamberth says.
In 2015, it rolled out a plan to convert its aged care sites to as high a proportion of renewable energy as possible. The $1.1 million investment has seen solar panels installed on six sites to date in Rockhampton, Bundaberg, Brisbane and Townsville.
Five other sites are in the process of transitioning to solar, and all new developments including three currently under construction or recently completed in Brisbane, Townsville and the Gold Coast will be run on solar power.
Lamberth says the solar will have a seven-and-a-half year payback and that the facilities consume all the power they generate.
Currently, they are providing about 30 per cent of total facility energy use, with day shift operations such as kitchens and laundries in particular reducing reliance on grid energy.
“We don’t feed back into the grid. A lot of the energy companies won’t let us because the systems are so big,” Lamberth says.
He says that relatives of the residents in the solar-powered facilities give feedback like “good on you” to the organisation, and are glad their parents are living in an environment where sustainability is a focus.
Staff are also positive, as it is an initiative they can see.
“Policy is just words on a page,” Lamberth says.
The solar has also increased staff engagement.
“It gets them thinking about whatever they are doing that generates waste,” for example.
Tackling waste and taste
As part of the sustainability policy, all waste is separated into recyclable and non-recyclable – and everything is weighed. There are also regular waste audits.
Mid last year, the organisation started recruiting chefs instead of cooks for its kitchens.
“The aim was to turn around the dining experience,” Lamberth says.
“A cook can generate volume and a menu, but a chef is looking to make the most of every ingredient, and create food that is palatable to the taste and to the eyes, because we also eat with our eyes.”
A chef also creates less waste, he says, something the organisation can quantify as all food waste is weighed.
“A cook often overcooks because they worry there won’t be enough, whereas a chef goes the extra step to make the most of those ingredients.”
The outcome has been reduced consumption of raw materials for food, and reduction in costs for disposing of food waste through general waste collection.
As well, most food waste is now composted and used for raised garden beds installed for residents.
Lamberth says the waste focus also flows through into procurement, with a proactive approach of requesting suppliers reduce packaging where excess waste creation has been identified.
Procurement practices and lifecycle thinking
Overall, Carinity has a policy of only procuring goods and services from suppliers that have solid environmental policies.
When decisions are being made about procuring kitchen or laundry equipment, Lamberth says factors considered include an appliance’s energy efficiency, its water and chemical consumption and also the lifecycle of the equipment. Lifecycle includes not only its expected lifespan, but also whether at end of life it will be broken down into recyclable components.
Lamberth says “that whole of life thinking” is being applied across the board.
The vehicle fleet of 112 cars, trucks and buses is also being greened. An intentional decision was made to reduce engine sizes, which has seen the fuel bill drop from $22,000 a month 18 months ago to currently $20,000 a month.
Late next year, when the warranty on many makes of electric vehicle batteries will become lengthier, the fleet will start shifting to hybrid EVs, Lamberth says.
Currently, a lot of people are “shy” in terms of buying second-hand EVs because the warranty on the batteries is only for a few years – and they are one of the most expensive parts of the vehicle.
However, it is expected to be increased to six to eight years, meaning people can step into that market with confidence.
“The taxi market has embraced hybrids – so [in future] my three-year old secondhand hybrid will be taken up in a second,” Lamberth says.
Energy efficiency improvements and smart-tech
In terms of general energy efficiency, lighting is being upgraded at two sites. At Woodlawn, a three-month-long program is seeing the wholesale changeover of all light fittings to LED. Lamberth says this is expected to have a four year payback.
As part of selecting the consultants for the project, he says asking what would be done with the redundant lighting and ensuring there would be a sustainable solution was a consideration.
At the Wishart, Queensland site, for the past three years every time a light bulb is identified as defective it is automatically replaced with an LED. About 80 per cent of the lights are now LEDs.
All new developments have LED lighting specified as standard.
As well as reducing energy use, the new lighting has improved life for residents, as it is whiter and brighter, providing better visibility for aged persons.
Lamberth says the management recognises that it is caring for a generation largely unaccustomed to using air conditioning in their homes. All the AC units are individually controlled, with residents able to control them to two degrees either side of a 23°C set point – but 40 per cent of them never switch them on.
Of those that do, some are familiar enough with the control panel to switch it on or off or adjust the temperature, but many will automatically open a window if they feel uncomfortable instead. So the windows have a read switch that turns the AC unit off automatically if the window is opened.
The facilities also offer to provide the residents with a TV, instead of bringing their own, which tend to be cathode ray sets with a set-top box – which uses a lot of energy.
Instead smart LED TVs are provided that can also sense when a resident leaves the room and switch off automatically, turning on again when they re-enter.
“We are trying to put in smart technology so our residents don’t have to think about it,” Lamberth says.
Putting nature into sustainable design
Design specifications for facilities are highly detailed.
“In my department we take every new development from sourcing the land then through all the development consents, design, operability, commissioning and maintenance,” Lamberth says.
“We don’t ever let go of the product.
“We design our developments to be efficient for our staff, home-like for our residents and low maintenance.”
Plant life is an important element of design, particularly for sites with a dementia wing, he says. Landscaping aims to have a “tactile feel” with different textures of plants and sensations including wet and dry, and outdoor areas for residents to utilise.
Where sites are on a large parcel of land, the aim is to revegetate and achieve a “countrified” look, such as with the new Cedarbrook aged care site in Mudgeerabah on the Gold Coast.
The 23 hectare site only has 20 per cent of land that is suitable for construction, the balance being subject to overland stormwater flows.
Lamberth says council has stipulated a revegetation approach for the non-constructible land that would cost the developer more than $900,000 over 10 years.
Instead, Carinity engaged with environmental consultants and a specialist landscape architect and came up with a novel plan that will cost around 10 per cent of the council proposal.
Instead of mechanical clearing, weed spraying and revegetating, it has taken a natural approach. It has partnered with the Southport State School to have the school’s animal husbandry course horses and cattle agisted at the site in fenced off areas.
Small areas will also be fenced off and natural regeneration encouraged by controlled burning. The fences will gradually be moved out to make larger areas over time.
“So we get the same result [as council’s plan] but do it in a much more ecological way,” Lamberth says.
“And it is lovely for the residents to look out on fields and see horses and cattle grazing.”
Pathways will also be built so residents can take a stroll and engage with the animals, and students have had engaging with the residents added into their curriculum.
Plans for the site also include a market garden, to bring the community onto the grounds. The gardens will also likely help supply the kitchens.
A similar initiative is planned for the Townsville site, Lamberth says.
“We need to take that old idea of nursing homes as horrible places no one wants to go to and turn it on its ear.”