Tim Carey On Creating Sustainable Solutions

By Stephanie Thompson

Name: Tim Carey
Course: Introduction to Sustainability

As an unemployed geologist fresh out of school, Tim Carey was driving around and stumbled across an open pit copper mine in Southern Arizona. In those days, you could just drive into the open pit and cruise around an inoperative mine. The scale of the devastation he saw was so stunning that he decided on the spot that he was going to back to school to determine how to create sustainable solutions. Tim returned to graduate school and got a degree in environmental engineering, and then went to work to fix the problems caused by an unregulated mining industry, like groundwater cleanup, soil contamination, and air pollution.

Tim went on to spend more than 20 years working in sustainability, resource conservation, and recycling in the food and beverage, building materials, and electronics industries. He led the team that built PepsiCo’s first national beverage container recycling program, collecting more than 100 million post-consumer containers. The program has been featured at the Super Bowl, Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game, the NBA All-Star Game, and the NFL Draft. He helped build a world-class technical team that has delivered millions of dollars in sustainability productivity each year since 2008. He serves on a number of boards including The Sustainability Consortium, Keep America Beautiful, and a few others.

How did sustainability become your mission?
At one point, with a group of really sage colleagues, we realized that the end-of-pipe approach to fixing problems was quite possibly insane. We decided that these problems should be fixed in product and process design, not after environmental damage had occurred. Fortunately, Hewlett Packard, who was well ahead of the curve at the time, agreed and with their guidance and leadership we took this budding concept called Product Stewardship and Design for Environment and applied it to consumer and business product development. I guess you could say that’s where the real work in sustainability started. It was long before I had heard the term “sustainability” in its current context, and there was no map or manual.  We were just making it up as we went along.
What do you most enjoy about your profession?
Three things. First, fixing systemic business problems that make companies less competitive—and I assure you, every sustainability issue is, at its core, an opportunity for competitors to beat you. The second is working in multidisciplinary teams. I know that is a cliché, but sustainability requires you to touch everyone in and outside the organization: marketers, engineers, finance people, NGOs, lawyers, operators, maintenance technicians, etc., etc. In each company I’ve worked in, I knew more people than anyone else I encountered and that led to ideas and solutions that no one person could have developed. The last is doing something for the environment and humanity. Not to be melodramatic, but there is something incredible and perfect about the earth and organisms that live here. How could we be so careless as to destroy even the smallest portion of it to make a buck?
What advice would you give to someone looking to enter this career field?
Simple—be passionate and pragmatic. Find and deliver business value (even if you work for government). That will allow you the freedom to try the really big things. Last, have a diverse skill set. It’s better to be able to do sustainability and something else—be it engineering, finance, law, marketing, public policy, heck—anything. Sometimes, that’s what gets you in the door. You can always migrate to sustainability after you are inside. Getting in the door is the key. I got in the door with a BS in Geology by offering to climb down into manholes to collect wastewater samples. It was odious work but it gave me a chance to take the next step.
How is the field of sustainability changing?
Well I think, or hope, that it’s going mainstream. I spent 15 years trying to get executives to care. They do now, almost universally. We’re also just scratching the surface of what is possible and what needs to be done. We’re a million miles from where we need to be and there isn’t enough space for me to describe why. What we lack most are ideas and creativity and new models. I want to know whose name from the current class of students we’ll still be talking about 100 years from now, because the really big ideas haven’t even been conceived of yet.
What made you approach UC San Diego Extension to propose this new course?
I’m a westerner and have lived in California, Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, and Alberta, Canada. I also worked out of Hewlett Packard’s Rancho Bernardo office quite a lot and spent time around the campus. Finally, and most oddly, Bill Walton, the San Diego-based basketball great, said some really nice things about UC San Diego to me when we were on a panel together. UC San Diego seemed open to the bigger ideas and approaches to learning than some other places I was talking with, so I figured I would give it a go.
What do you hope students take away from your course?
Online learning is a different approach and the feedback loops are less direct, so it will be more difficult to tell if I’m reaching the audience. Given that, at the very least, I hope they learn something, that I inspire them, and above all, that they succeed because there is literally no time to lose in this field.  

As evidence of the urgency, I give you these quotes:

  • “Change always starts at the margins and then moves to the center.” (Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia and leading environmentalist) We’re at the margins still. We’ve got to get to the center to stimulate the mass market to change.

  • “What is the business case for ending life on earth?” (Ray Anderson, founder of Interface Inc.) For students who want context on that alarming statement from a business CEO, read Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction.

  • “When carbon dioxide is added to the atmosphere, it takes decades – in a technical sense, millennia – for the earth to equilibrate...[This fall’s weather] was a product of warming that had become inevitable 20 or 30 years ago, and the warming that’s being locked in today won’t be fully felt until today’s toddlers reach middle age.  In effect, we are living in the climate of the past, but already we’ve determined the climate’s future” (Elizabeth Kolbert, A Song of Ice, The New Yorker, October 24, 2016)

Get the details on the Introduction to Sustainability course, or learn more about our Environment and Sustainability programs and courses on our website. If you have questions, feel free to contact the department at unex-environmental@ucsd.edu or (858) 534-8139.

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