Julio Alvarez is cultivating environmentally sustainable behavior in Mexico’s next generations with a student-led, self-sustainable environmental education methodology in schools that is triggering adoption of responsible waste management and eco-friendly behaviors in the school communities and beyond.
The New Idea
To increase environmental awareness and sustainable behavior, Julio is incentivizing school communities to collaborate in creating a culture of environmental sustainability. Unlike one-off, cursory interventions or workshops that characterize the field of environmental education in Mexico, Julio’s Promesa program has a minimum five-year commitment designed to build student and community engagement over time, built into the regular school day, and links education about environmental issues to a student-led process of transforming their own school environment. Additionally, by tying the model to a student-led recycling program that generates revenue, the program is financially self-sustaining for the schools, and enables them to evolve into models of sustainability by implementing green infrastructure projects paid for by the recycling revenues. In this way, students are leaders and direct stakeholders in Promesa’s activities, having real incentives to get involved in order to enlarge their respective environmental funds with the final goal of being an eco-friendly school. Grupo Promesa involves the wider school community including students, parents and teachers, gradually increasing their levels of engagement over time.
Julio also leverages the work in schools to increase environmental awareness on a broader scale. For example, interest from parents was so strong that Julio developed an environmental education model adaptable to adult workplaces. These 49 “Promesa companies,” that are now working toward responsible waste management, were brought into the network due to students from Promesa schools encouraging their parents to more actively contribute to environmental wellbeing.
Climate change is one of the most pressing challenge we face as a society, and in Mexico, environmental problems are particularly acute due to lack of access to water and adequate waste management. Mexico is one of the countries generating most waste worldwide (100,800 tons of waste generated per day, which is almost 37 million tons per year) while having one of the lowest recycling rates (14%). Overall, there is a mismatch between environmental problems, that are a daily fact of life, and the general lack of awareness on the need for sustainability. The lack of attention to this problem begins with the little knowledge that most people have on the topic.
Environmental issues are not a common component of education, whether informally in the household or otherwise. There is no formal, integrated program on environmental education in schools, since they often require time and resources schools simply do not have. Instead, there are usually sporadic workshops or talks by companies, government or foundations that rely on the good will a few generous actors yet fail to instill deep-rooted environmental culture. Current environmental education models lack continuity, concrete action plans, or engagement of the child’s wider community that would lead participants to live more eco-friendly. Nor does the child’s school serve as a true model of sustainability for students to take ownership and pride in. Julio has identified an opportunity to make an impact both in the youngest generations and their greater communities, instilling a shift in culture and behaviors from an early age.
Julio is changing the face of environmental education in Mexico, making it an integrated, sustainable, and action-oriented engagement through which students and the adults around them learn sustainable behaviors and transform their direct environment. He does this through a multi-year methodology in schools that builds a sustained commitment to environmental practice, school funds for environmental activities through a student-led recycling program, and gamification within and across schools to catalyze momentum.
Julio’s Grupo Promesa offers a K-12 environmental education methodology that is easy to implement, comprehensive, and engages the wider school community. Schools sign a 5-year contract guaranteeing commitment to the curriculum, which is divided into modules of waste management, composting and gardening, water, energy, and zero emissions. The school creates an ecological committee made up mostly of students, but also teachers and parent volunteers, which serves as the leadership team. An environmental educator comes to the school once a month to work with that team to implement activities and to facilitate workshops with Promesa’s allies, including the Center for Green Schools, Ecofilm, LEED, and WWF. To begin building the school’s autonomy, five of these environmental events each year are defined by Promesa, but three are up to the school, as defined by the committee. Parents are also involved in the program, engaged by students who share weekly learnings with them and enlist them to recycle at the school.
The benchmarks considered before a school can move on to the next curriculum module are: percentage of student body involvement in the activities, whether the school has installed technology for the most recent module and adequately engages with it, involvement in and number of effective campaigns implemented by the ecological committee, and the knowledge level of the students on the information from that module. After 5 years, successful Promesa schools are able to continue their environmental programs autonomously. However, membership in the network is for life, and Promesa continues to provide advice when requested, updating them with the latest online courses and didactic material so that they continue to strengthen their program constantly.
To make the model sustainable for schools and to incentivize and enable a sustained investment by the school in environmental infrastructure and practice, Julio developed a self-financing model integrated with a call to action for students to apply their learnings. In the first module on waste, students develop a recycling program at the school. Grupo Promesa collects and sells the recyclables for the schools, generating an environmental fund for the school. With their environmental funds, the committees cover the costs of Julio’s program and use any excess funds to implement school projects based on that year’s module: vegetable gardens for composting, rainwater capture systems for water, or solar panels for energy. Each year, students learn to add new materials to the recycling program, thus allowing them to grow their revenues. Every month, to motivate students to progress and continue efforts, Promesa sends schools a report on their recycling totals, and at the end of the school year a sustainability report summarizing that year’s progress including amount of energy and water saved, as well as total amount recycled. To jumpstart the funds for schools new to the network, during the summer, Promesa collects all of the school’s notebooks from the previous year to sell to a recycler.
To make the recycling program work, Julio negotiated higher than market rates for recyclables with private recycling centers, based on providing a large supply of wholesale recyclables already clean, packed, and sorted by students. For example, the regular price per kg of PET is 0.19 USD but Promesa has negotiated to sell it at 0.29 USD. Of that 0.29 USD, 0.19 goes to the environmental fund of each school, and Grupo Promesa uses the remainder to pay its expenses for managing the recycling collection and to grow the schools program.
Julio uses gamification to increase student ownership of Promesa’s ultimate goal of cultivating lasting, responsible environmental behaviors. For example, students have individual incentives to recycle by winning “Promesa Points” based on how many and what kind of materials they recycle. The points can be turned in for goods at ecological markets organized on a quarterly basis for the entire network of schools. Cross-school initiatives further build momentum for creating a lasting environmental culture by engaging the entire network of Promesa’s 100+ schools in friendly competition, for example in a call to action schools to recycle as much as possible to win a field trip to Google Mexico’s sustainable facilities. Promesa also facilitates a monthly day of zero waste generation for schools, making the exercise fun by combining it with costume or art competitions, while raising awareness on the amount of trash generated by the schools daily.
Julio currently works in 188 schools in Mexico City, impacting over 130,000 students and their teachers and parents. Schools generally start with 15-30% student participation, and the average participation rate is now more than 70%. Seven schools are already autonomous in terms of managing their own recycling activities, though continue to engage with Grupo Promesa for course content. In 2016-2017, 305 tons of waste were recycled. This year, Julio expects this number to double.
Within a year, Grupo Promesa will reach more than 300 schools and within 5 years 2,400 schools in Mexico City. Outside of Mexico City, starting in August 2018 Julio will pilot a free online version of the program for 25 schools in different regions of the country. Because Promesa will not be able to directly collect and sell of recyclables in other regions, Julio is identifying local recycling centers who can do so, and has negotiated attractive margins for the schools’ funds. The inter-school campaigns and competitions also help Julio reach more schools outside of Mexico City by promoting Promesa on the radio and internet.
Promesa now also works with some of the country’s biggest companies to manage workplace waste including Sony, Google, Bonafont, Cinépolis, and 7-Eleven, as well as 44 other companies. Even the National Ministry of the Environment is now a “Promesa Company,” having not had a sustainable workplace prior. 90% of the companies joined the network due to children of employees, who as students of Promesa schools enlisted their parents to take a more active role towards environmental sustainability.
Julio has had lifelong passions for both entrepreneurship and environmental activism. Growing up in Mexico City, he noticed his country had little concern about consumption and waste, which coupled with not having a good recycling program led to streets full of garbage. In high school, he organized beach cleanups in Acapulco, near Mexico City, motivating people to care for the beach and placing 200 trash cans along the coast. When he saw that the cans failed to generate a change in behaviors, with many people continuing to litter, Julio realized the need to do something to form an ecological conscience in citizens. Julio’s motivation for action evolved exponentially as he began learning more about environmental problems and the little urgency given to them despite their magnitude.
In 2009, after graduating with a degree in Industrial Engineering, Julio sold a gym equipment maintenance company he had founded in 2005 so that he could focus full-time on his passion for environmental issues. Believing he could change environmental culture in Mexico by making companies role models in sustainability, he founded Grupo Promesa as a consulting firm to help corporations such as Grupo Carso manage waste. However, he realized that it was very difficult to change the behavior of companies. In 2012, he decided to focus Grupo Promesa on reaching youth, understanding that it is easier to change the mindset of kids than adults set in their ways, leaving environmental consulting to his co-founder who renamed the consulting company WasteCero. To start Grupo Promesa’s educational work, he collaborated with a network of leaders in the field to design course content, yet after two years of developing the curriculum he realized schools could not afford to pay for it. From there, he developed iterations of the Grupo Promesa model, ultimately coming up with the current model leveraging recycling as a way to keep the program free, accessible and engaging for students.