Spring Break Sustainability Lessons in Mexico

During Syracuse University’s spring break in March, seven students elected to take a trip to Mexico not for sun and fun, but rather to learn all about sustainability. Led by Todd Moss, associate professor for entrepreneurship and faculty director of the Sustainability Enterprise Partnership, the trip was an experiential learning initiative to help two Mexican companies with marketing and supply chain challenges.

Toks Restaurant Group, which has partnered with the Martin J. Whitman School of Management in the past, is seeking to reduce or eliminate single-use plastics from its restaurants. Students examined the company’s supply chain process, reviewing not only on the customer-facing side, but also the kitchen, identifying where plastics could be reduced. For example, the restaurants store sauces in plastic bags and use plastic straws for drinks. As part of the evaluation, students visited the largest landfill in Mexico to see the scope of what they are attempting to reduce. The trip was eye-opening for them, as they viewed not only tons and tons of plastic, but also Mexican people living among the piles.

“On one of the first days our team went one of the largest open air dumps in North America and this was a truly eye opening experience,” said Mandy Klaben ’19, who’s working toward a degree in environmental engineering. “I had been to a dump before but that was nothing like this. Piles and piles of garbage spread to expanses beyond my line of site, and the most truly astonishing part of the experience, people, called pepenadores, working, eating and living among the trash. Many of these people have never known a life outside of this open air dump and are never registered as citizens. Seeing their way of life and getting to interact with them was definitely an experience I will carry with me for the rest of my life.”

She added that the project has changed her. “I see plastics everywhere now and our single use throw away culture has never been so apparent to me.  I see it all around me now in ways I had never noticed until this capstone class. I am now making conscious decisions to make my life less waste producing every day and I am questioning the world around me and how changes can be made to address this issue on a larger scale.”

Another student group worked with Tacana Coffee Cooperative, a certified-organic and Rainforest Alliance-certified cooperative near the Guatamalan border. Toks buys about a third of its coffee production; Tacana sells the remainder on the commodities market. It is now looking to sell directly to consumers, too. The students researched how best to market the coffee and rebrand it for the public. Their marketing plan included sending samples to top global influencers and direct mailings.

Later, Toks visited the Syracuse University campus to hear the final projects from the students. Ricardo Medina, manager of social responsibility at Toks, also paid a visit to local coffee roasters, including Café Kubal, Recess Coffee and Peaks; all three ordered samples of Tacana’s coffee.

The trip was financed by a Whitman Teaching Innovation grant, which covered all the students’ expenses. The students are all pursuing master’s and Ph.D. degrees, along with the Certificate in Certificate of Advanced Study in Sustainable Enterprise (CASSE).

Businesses that would like to sponsor a student project are encouraged to apply. The deadline is Dec. 1, 2019 with notifications going out in January 2020.