A native of Baltimore, Maryland, James Tosh meandered his way to San Diego and his career in sustainability via an unconventional route. After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in History from the University of Maryland, James followed a group of friends to Hawaii in pursuit of his passion for surfing. After two idyllic years there, he returned to the mainland to pursue a career as a history professor. He made his way to San Diego to find a job and continue surfing to ease the transition back to reality.
James accepted a position as a bellman at the Grand Del Mar in Carmel Valley while he contemplated his next steps. While surfing La Jolla Shores, he became aware of environmental issues affecting the region. Despite the picturesque landscape, untreated runoff from the city’s storm water system periodically flowed directly into the ocean. The pollutants rage from toxic metals, trash, hazardous materials from municipal waste operations, sediment, and harmful bacteria. The pollutants were so bad that for a few days after any rain, surfers had to avoid the water.
“Luckily it doesn’t rain all that often, but I thought that’s still a really big problem. How would you even start to solve that?” James said.
The question planted a seed that lead him to pursue courses at UC San Diego Extension in urban planning and sustainability. Now married, 36 and living in New York, he is an associate of Commissioning and Sustainability with Elementa Engineering.
Tell us about your current job.
I run projects with aggressive sustainability and energy goals. My projects range from a small learning center going for Living Building Challenge certification (the world’s most rigorous proven performance standard), to sustainability and commissioning consulting as an owner’s representative for the LaGuardia Central Terminal B Redevelopment project. One of my specialties is rainwater harvesting and reuse. I love my job because the projects and challenges change daily, and I get a real sense of purpose from working in sustainability.
What made you pursue the Sustainable Business Practices certificate at UC San Diego Extension?
I passed campus nearly every day when I went to surf, so when I got interested in urban planning it was the first place I thought of going. After the Introduction to Sustainability class, I was hooked.
How did it affect your life?
Getting this certificate (in 2012) completely changed the course of my career. When I first started, I was a bellman at a hotel. By the time I got my certificate, the hotel I worked for won a "Recycler of the Year" award from the City of San Diego because of a program I implemented. That program was based on my practicum from my Sustainable Business Practices certificate. After that, I developed a proposal to be the full-time Sustainability Manager for the hotel. I got that job, and after a few years, I turned that into a consulting career that took me to Austin, Texas, and now to New York City.
What program did you implement?
Well, we failed a city recycling inspection, there was an ordinance the required a 40 percent recycling rate at the time. The hotel was only around 17 percent. I helped them roll out a program to increase our commercial food waste recycling that boosted our recycling number to about 80 percent. That took about three months to implement, and that’s when we got the award from the city. We were sending about 30 tons of waste to be composted instead of the landfill every month. It cleaned up our recycling stream and resulted in a cost savings of about 50 percent. After we received the award, I submitted a proposal for a full-time job in sustainability at the hotel by explaining the saving we could achieve and what I thought that position could be worth. It worked out. We won awards for the next few years too.
How did you implement this kind of program as a bellman?
I was taking the class at UC San Diego Extension, and I knew that this was stuff that I could implement right now where I work if the hotel would let me. I asked a couple of people around the hotel to be on the green team, and I admit that I got brushed off by a few of them at first, but I kept asking. One day, I walked into the director of engineering’s office with my ideas on sustainability and he said that I could shadow him at meetings. That meant that I would get permission from the bellman desk to go into meetings whenever someone was there to sell the hotel lightbulbs or other items. That’s why I was in the meeting when the city came to check on our recycling program.
Any advice for others looking to pursue this certificate?
You get from it what you put into it. It worked so well for me because I created opportunities to implement the ideas I was learning at the place where I was working. I didn’t wait to get a job in sustainability to start working in sustainability. When I found someone willing to work with me, I kept saying, “yes” and figured it out as I went. I’ll be honest, when they offered me a job working on this project, I really didn’t know what I was doing until I started doing it, but after earning the certificate, I had the skills and the confidence to go for it.