Rob Townsend refers to the day Kalamazoo College hired him as “the sweetest day.” It was Valentine’s Day of 1980 and he came to the school as a sanitary engineer which, he says, is a fancy term for custodian. After six months he moved up the ranks to grounds maintenance, and twelve years into the job he started working on his prized project: the recycling program.
Rob has a cheerful demeanor and an impressive beard. “If he shaved his beard, no one would know who this man was,” says Maddie Baxter, a student who has worked on Rob’s staff for a couple of months. The bushy patch of grey hair hangs down several inches below his chin and connects to a comparably thick moustache above his upper lip.
He was born hearing impaired and uses white hearing aids, visible when he turns to the side. They allow him to catch about 80% of a conversation, he says, which is good enough for him. As a young child, Rob’s parents took him to university medical centers, where he was taught lip reading, how to identify sounds and speech techniques.
It seems fitting that Rob found his career calling at a college, given that he has been around them since his toddler years. Rob came to K when, after a couple of years of taking college classes, he tired of relying on his parents for housing and money. He learned from a friend that the school was hiring and decided to apply.
The recycling part of the job was not something Rob had anticipated when he came to the College, although he says it fits in with his way of life. The youngest of five boys, Rob says, “I got a lot of hand-me-down clothes, hand-me-down toys…I’m not real picky about brand new stuff.”
20 years ago Facilities Management (FacMan) decided to take over a small recycling program started by student environmental group EnvOrg and biology professor Paul Sotherland. Paul Manstrom, Associate Vice President of FacMan, looked to Rob to head the program. He cites Rob’s commitment to sustainability as a major reason for choosing him. Rob says, “[Paul] thought that I was just going to go pick up paper. No, I had a long-term goal and, as you see, where we’re at—that’s my long-term goal.”
Rob’s enthusiasm sometimes goes to far, says Paul Manstrom. “He’s very stubborn,” he says. “Sometimes [his] vision wants to carry him faster than we have the resources for.”
Lately Rob’s vision has been directed toward composting. “Composting in soon to be more in demand,” says Rob. “[The College would] like to step it up to pursue in the composting, so that will be my major project this year and this summer.”
Right now Rob has an active yard waste composting system in place at the College’s Lillian Anderson Arboretum. Since early spring Rob has advised FacMan to resume dumping leaves and grasses at the site, something they did years ago. “We’ll start collecting the yard waste this coming fall, winter,” he says.
Rob wants the composting arrangement to include food waste. Currently he collects bins of cafeteria leftovers and brings them to a farm 20 minutes from the College, three times a week, where he gives the food to pigs.
Moving food to the composting site would save Rob time and fuel, he says. He also takes issue with the fact that the school pays the farm to take its leftovers. “I totally disagree with that,” Rob says. “The way I see it is we’re helping them decrease the cost of food they need to feed their livestock.”
Paul Manstrom dislikes the arrangement as well. “[It’s] not a great situation,” he says. But he says the farm was the only place he could find that would take the food. The transportation and collection processes that he and Rob have worked out for taking the food to the farm, he says, will be useful once the composting program develops.
Rob needs to figure out the logistical issues involved with the project, namely the target balance of food and yard waste, and the space needed to realize the project. “We generate anywhere from two to three tons of food waste per week,” he says. ”When I get enough [yard waste], then that will justify for me to put the food in.”
Paul Manstrom says the College is also apprehensive about putting a large composting site in the Arboretum, which they hope to use as the site for a still-in-the-works Center for Environmental Stewardship.
Rob and Paul Manstrom both agree that Rob needs an assistant if he wants to complete the project. They have run into financing roadblocks with the administration on this issue, says Paul Manstrom. Many departments want funding for extra staff, he says, and the administration does not necessarily see recycling as a top priority.
The rest of the recycling program currently competes for Rob’s attention during the day. He oversees a staff of 20 students, who notice that Rob can seem overextended. “Sometimes he seems kind of disorganized and flustered,” says Aya Cockram, who worked for recycling throughout her four years at K.
“He’s not the most organized person I’ve worked for,” Maddie agrees, but is quick to add, “he’s probably one of the most pleasant and friendly people I’ve worked for.” Aya also emphasizes Rob’s positive side over his disorganization. “He’s the best,” she says.
Rob hopes to stick around at the recycling program for another five or six years, health permitting. He has recently experienced health setbacks that have pushed him to slow down and to listen to his body, he says. “There are days where I feel crappy and I just don’t feel like I want to come in,” he says. “But you know, it’s kind of hard for me [because] I’m so dedicated to K College.” Rob, ever optimistic, tends not to dwell on this negativity. “I got time,” he says, reassuringly. “I got time.