Travis Blomberg, the campus resource coordinator for the Office of Sustainability (O.S.), won the Nelson Institute’s Rising Star Alumni Award for 2023. According to Nelson’s alumni awards page, the prize honors “initiative as well as accomplishments of alumni who are making a significant difference in the world soon after graduation and who have attained a notable degree of success or impact through their professional accomplishments and/or community service.” We sat down with Travis to speak about his experience at the Nelson Institute, his journey through multiple educational disciplines and jobs, his most significant initiatives at the O.S., and how students passionate about sustainability might find inspiration in his career.
Travis, congratulations on winning the 2023 Nelson Institute Rising Star Alumni Award. What does it mean for you to be recognized as a rising star in environmental studies?
It’s an honor to be recognized with current and past award winners. You have so many qualified and passionate alumni who are doing a lot of great work. Many alumni could have received this award, and I am fortunate to have been both nominated and selected as an award winner.
In 2020 you joined the O.S. as the campus resource coordinator. What led you to the position, and how did your experience with the Nelson Institute prepare you?
Before I was at the Office of Sustainability, I was the Executive Director for WasteCap Resource Solutions, which is a nonprofit based in Milwaukee. That organization’s vision is to transform waste into resources and its mission is to provide waste reduction and recycling assistance to the benefit of business and the environment. WasteCap assists the [State of Wisconsin’s] Department of Administration’s (DOA) Division of Facilities Development (DFD) with its construction and demolition waste management program. Any DFD construction or demolition project with a budget over $3 million is a part of that program. Effectively, the organization provided data to all UW System universities and state agencies. Additionally, WasteCap provided services directly to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for diversion efforts related to its municipal solid waste stream.
After WasteCap completed its initial work, the O.S. decided to create its own position due to the complexity and need for a full-time staff member to perform the work. Having been an alumni of the university, formerly teaching a campus sustainability course, being involved in the initial consulting work, and my wife also working for the university, I considered throwing my hat in the ring. That’s a long way of saying that when you’re in the world of sustainability, a lot of opportunities open up for you. The more people you know, the more work that you complete, the greater network that you keep.
What drew you to waste? Obviously that isn’t the first thing students dreaming of working in sustainability think about, but it’s a massive, complex, necessary problem to confront.
Before I even came to the university, I thought I was going to be an environmental lawyer. So, I majored in environmental studies and political science. For fun, I also got a certificate in integrated liberal studies, where I met [former Director of Sustainability Education and Research] Cathy Middlecamp. About my junior year, I wanted to pivot my career, to not go down the law route. I got more interested in sustainable business, and that led me to do a masters program, and coincidentally Cathy Middlecamp was my advisor for grad school. She was working on campus sustainability through the lens of a living learning laboratory, while I viewed it through the lens of a business enterprise. Together, we uncovered opportunities to showcase and bring awareness to sustainability projects that saved money, provided social value to campus stakeholders, and helped the environment. The hands-on experience working with a complex and large organization like UW–Madison gave me knowledge that helped me pursue a career in sustainable business.
From there I worked as a communications intern for a non-profit called Cool Choices with Kathy Kuntz, [now director of the Dane County Office of Energy & Climate Change]. I also worked as a sustainability intern for Lands’ End, which is a clothing and apparel company. It was there that they had me working on a corporate campus-wide zero waste-to-landfill initiative and analyzing their product impacts using tools created by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. I also worked on energy-related projects and water-related projects … but I think that initiative was the catalyst that allowed me to spend dedicated time to try to solve these [waste] issues. Lands’ End had unique issues because they’re a clothing manufacturer. For example, what happens when you have misprints? What happens when you have embroidery logos that are wrong? What happens, if you have a 100% guaranteed policy that customers can ship back [a product] if they don’t like it–what do you do with that material? These were just some problems that I had the opportunity to help solve.
How does the variety of experience and education help you in your day-to-day work? How does that change how you approach the problems you have to face in your daily tasks?
It has allowed me to look at a problem through different lenses. If I had not ever worked at Lands’ End, I probably would not be as keyed into custodial workers or frontline workers. If you’re trying to make change, you need everyone involved in that change, and you need to truly work with stakeholders and hear their input. That’s where I think the diversity of experiences and the diversity in education has given me more insight.
What are some of the skills that help you succeed at your work?
Collaboration is our biggest resource. The university is very siloed, and you’ll hear that time and time again. So in order for us to do sustainability work on this campus and truly be sustainable, we have to work in a cross-functional manner so that I can work with finance, I can work with human resources, I can work with the waste recycling team, I can work with custodial members, I can work with purchasing. And if we’re looking at how materials come into campus, how we use materials, and then how they are discarded, we can’t look at it in a silo.
We have to trace the pathway and trace the decision points. Why does this stuff even come here? What value does it bring and when? When it is discarded, how do we responsibly manage it?
Our UW Zero Waste Team—which is a cross-functional group of people throughout campus that are big decision makers and key stakeholders—allows us to get the work done faster and in a more collaborative way. We’re focused on how we can change the infrastructure, and then work our way backwards so that we can then get the communications on how to discard things properly and also work on vendor contracts/agreements and all of the other things that are needed.
A major part of the Office of Sustainability’s mission has been educating students: a lot of this comes through the Intern Program, and these students often look toward staff members like you to see how they might develop careers in sustainability. How would you describe your work with student interns since you started with the OS, and what advice would you give them? As they start to develop in and enter into the professional sphere, what would they gain from your journey from studying in Nelson all the way to working at the O.S.?
I work with four undergraduate project assistants who work directly on Zero Waste. We get a lot of questions from the general student body on campus, so part of what we do is create systems to provide answers. For example, a lot of folks ask how and where they should properly discard items. Our student project assistants and I are creating this interactive database to answer these questions for all campus members. So when campus members reach out with these questions, we can direct them to this resource that will be regularly updated, and they can come back to it for educational purposes to be properly informed.
You were also asking about my journey, and I would say you just need to put yourself out there. The best thing students can do is get involved in an internship or get involved in applied work. School is great, but application is where you put what you’ve learned into practice. It’s great to know the macro-level issues of global climate change, but how do you go and make that change? I hate to say it, but networking is a very, very important piece of this too—and for students that were in high school or just starting college when COVID happened, this may be new. Building community and connecting with alumni, going to events like what the Nelson Institute holds, is a really good opportunity to start meeting people and having conversations about the various jobs that people do. People can look at my LinkedIn and see all the different jobs and paths and careers that I’ve had and … understand it’s not always going to be as straightforward as, I went to school to be an accountant, now I’m an accountant.
As you receive this award and look back on what you’ve done in this position for the O.S., what are you proudest of, and what are you working hard toward achieving?
I am very happy about what we’ve done with the compost program, and the reason I’m proud is that it showcases the issues that we have in material management. The issue that we had with the composting program was that our vendor didn’t want our food scraps, so we had no outlet. Sustainable Materials Management is all about interconnected links, and if one link is broken, it disrupts the whole system, especially when we’re talking about circular models. You can’t make something circular if one very important piece is missing. So I’m very happy about the work that the Wisconsin Union, University Housing, Physical Plant Waste & Recycling, and the West Madison Agricultural Research Station have done—again, a cross-functional team of people that all work together on a short-term solution for how we get the majority of the food waste generated on campus to be composted. During the last fiscal year, almost 4,000 food carts were serviced and 383,450 pounds of food scraps were composted.
I’m really looking forward to how we’re going to leverage the UW Zero Waste team as a strategic initiative of the university, and that we’re going to be talking about purchasing, using materials, and discarding materials in a much more comprehensive way. We’ll be collecting information and providing resources so that we can save money and increase the social benefits for both workers and our students, faculty, and staff.
By: Marek Makowski