By his own admission, Ryan Todd wasn't much of a student in high school. But the "total soccer kid," as he describes himself, was dating Kimberly Dong, the valedictorian at their San Jose school, and as graduation approached, the two began talking about college. She'd be studying nursing at California State University, Sacramento. "Where are you going?" she asked him.

Ryan hadn't thought much about college. No one in his family, who had emigrated from Scotland to the U.S. in 1995, had a college degree.

But even if he was, as he says, "clueless," Kimberly was determined.  "She called me her 'project,'" Ryan says with a laugh. "Kimberly is the biggest reason I went to college and I'm super glad I did."

Today, the couple are married with a six-year-old daughter. Since August 2015, Ryan has been the Sustainability Manager at Sacramento State, where he earned a B.A. in environmental studies in 2009.

Now 32, Ryan calls his mission in leading sustainable practices at Sac State "broad but simple: decrease energy use, water use, waste, and greenhouse gas emissions."

 

A Campus-Wide Commitment to Going Green

When he started his job, Ryan was stepping into a newly created position.

Far from daunted by the challenge, he was raring to go. "I got to design my own job description, which is fantastic," he says. "If you give me a blank slate, I'll pile a lot more on my plate than anyone else would. Just tell me the end goal and I'll get it done."

Among the projects Ryan is proudest of is a robust composting program that processes the majority of campus landscaping and food waste. Leaves are turned into mulch used in a sprawling vegetable garden, with much of the produce donated to fight food insecurity on campus and off.  

"Pre-consumer food waste"—trimmings from the campus kitchen—also goes directly into the on-site composters, while "post-consumer food waste"—what's left on plates in the dining commons—gets sent to a local anaerobic digestion plant that breaks down the waste and turns it into bio-compacted natural gas. That, in turn, is used to fuel Sac State's eight campus shuttles.

This closed-loop system, which diverts more than 100 tons from landfills every academic year, saves money, cuts down on greenhouse emissions, and provides a sustainable way to transport 51,000 riders to and from campus.

 

Preparing Students for Green Jobs

While Ryan is helping to transform the Sac State campus, he's also giving students access to research experiences that help to solve real-world problems while preparing them for a professional career.

"My department can't help students earn their diplomas," he notes, "but what we can do is bridge the gap between what's being taught in the classroom and its practical application."

When, for example, Ryan wanted to find out whether changing to automatic faucets would actually reduce water usage on campus, he asked Alyssa Harmon, a biology student and intern, to design a study.

Alyssa swapped one regular faucet in a men's restroom and one in a women's restroom for infrared faucets that turn on only when movement is detected and shut off promptly. Then she monitored how much water each used. The conclusion: In just two weeks of using the smart faucets, 320 gallons of water were saved.

Sac State used the findings to apply for a grant from the California Department of Water Resources to replace all 430 manual faucets on campus; they recently got word they'll be getting $600,000 for the project.

"What Alyssa did will have a lasting impact," Ryan says, "and that's something she can talk about in a job interview."

 

The Making of an Environmental Advocate

The day after graduating from high school Ryan and Kimberly moved to Sacramento. She began her nursing studies at Sac State while he attended American River College, a nearby community college. Money, says Ryan, was very tight then: "We were super poor."

Both had jobs—he in a feed store, she in a veterinary hospital—while going to school, but spending money on movies and other kinds of entertainment was simply out of the question. Since the couple loved the outdoors, they instead spent their free time hiking and camping in places like nearby Lassen Volcanic National Park.

"That piqued my interest in learning more about the environment," remembers Ryan. After earning his associate's degree, he transferred to Sacramento State, majoring in environmental studies and minoring in geology.

When he saw "An Inconvenient Truth," the 2006 documentary about the consequences of global warming, he viewed his education with an increased urgency: "I thought, wow, I might be able to help fix this problem and help people understand the damage we're doing to our planet."

During his senior year at Sac State, Ryan landed a paid internship with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), which has a research laboratory on campus. "I knew I needed something on my résumé that would look better than bucking hay at a feed store," he says.

 

A Professor's Impact

He strengthened his résumé in another way, too. With the approval of his senior adviser, Dudley Burton, Ph.D., a professor in the department of environmental studies, Ryan chose a topic for his senior thesis that included both hands-on research and practical problem-solving: studying hazardous waste in the emergency department of a local Kaiser Permanente hospital.

His research revealed that three-quarters of what was put in solid-waste bins at the hospital could, in fact, be recycled.

"It was really cool to take these theories I had studied in class and apply them," Ryan says. "Starting a recycling program not only made Kaiser more environmentally responsible, it was cost-effective, because they were paying per-pound to dispose of waste."

Ryan's adviser was impressed. "My last memory as a Sac State student was sitting down with Dr. Burton and hearing him say, 'You did a great job. I expect great things out of you,'" he recalls.

"That had a big impact on me. Because I was the first person in my family to go to college, I was unsure how things would work out. Dr. Burton's praise really gave me a sense of security and motivated me."

 

'I Still Feel That Excitement'

When Kimberly spotted the Sustainability Manager opening at Sac State, she said to her husband, "This is perfect for you; go for it."

He was 30 when he moved into the job—still quite young for a management position—but, as Ryan points out, "the field of sustainability is relatively new. You'd be hard-pressed to find somebody with more than five years of experience in the field."

Ryan and his team of five full-time employees and a dozen student assistants are now leading projects that will shape the future of sustainability at Sac State, which has had a sustainability department since 2011.

With 3,500 trees; two LEED-certified buildings, including a fitness center that harvests daylight; innovative energy-saving practices; and more green construction underway, the campus is now recognized as one of the most sustainable campuses in the world.

Ultimately, though, sustainability will always be personal for Ryan: "I got interested in environmental science because you could literally go out and put your hands in the dirt when you're on a hike and see what you're learning about in class. I still feel that same sense of immediacy and excitement about what we're doing today."