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From Dumpster Diving to Making Caltech (and points beyond) a Better Place

By Chloe Meyere, Duck Career Network Communications Associate and UO StudentJohn Onderdonk

John Onderdonk ’98 Environmental Science

Director of Sustainability Programs, California Institute of Technology


As he looks back on his career, UO alumnus John Onderdonk jokes about the not-so-glamorous “dumpster diving” he did in the initial years of his career in sustainability. Although he eventually ended up at the California Institute of Technology, where he is currently the director of sustainability, there were many years of behind-the-scenes hard work and doing good that led him to his current position.

The Early Days in Sustainability

While at the UO, John studied environmental science and economics. After graduating in 1998, he spent the next several years traveling and working via the International Honors Program at Boston University. “There was no sustainability field [at the time],” John said, so he worked primarily in environmental consulting. However, he hoped to work in a more proactive setting, and to do so, he knew he needed to expand his knowledge. This led him to the Donald Bren School of Environmental Science at UC Santa Barbara, where in 2003 John received his masters in corporate environmental management. When he returned to the workforce, the buzz around sustainability had grown significantly, and the career opportunities appeared endless.

From Data to Better Decisions

“Really, sustainability is about finding out how things [in the environment] work so that you can make suggestions on how to fix them,” he explains. “The more data you collect, the better.” Entry level workers can’t be afraid to roll up their sleeves and “do the grunt work.” It’s the data that will allow for better informed decisions and to paint a clearer picture of the problems at hand. He admits that “the dumpster diving wasn’t that fun, but I did it anyway; talking to people and problem solving on my feet—that was definitely the fun part.” However, John is clear on what’s required to be successful in this field: the multidisciplinary background needed to allow for a creative and productive mindset. To achieve this, he suggests subscribing to related magazines and blogs, something he has been doing for years.

No Roadmap, but No Routine, Repetition

Five years ago, John was hired by Caltech to create and maintain a sustainability program that reduces the greenhouse gas emissions of the campus, while benefiting the institute’s core mission of research. Today, he continues to run this program, as well as manage the campus’ energy, water, building, and waste. Although John now works in management, his job is in no way routine, or repetitive. “There’s no roadmap,” he explains. “You just can’t carbon copy other people’s approach to sustainability; the key is to have a multidisciplinary skillset and an interest in being on the front line of a new and growing industry. 

“My job isn’t to convince people climate change is real; my job is to make Caltech a better place.” It’s people like John, truly passionate about making a change, that makes sustainability thrive.