Sara Kirker
Shown peering into a recyclable-trash receptacle, Sara Kirker is working through UCI's Community Outreach Center to encourage restaurants and hotels to think green. Daniel A. Anderson / University Communications

Graduate student Sara Kirker first noticed how the service industry affects the environment while working as a waitress at a resort in her native Hawaii.

“Food preparation has a huge impact on the environment,” says Kirker, who is pursuing a master’s in urban & regional planning at UC Irvine. “Switching to ceramic cups from paper and buying locally grown foods can really make a difference.”

When she moved to Southern California, Kirker vowed to learn how local businesses were reducing their resource consumption and show them ways to be more environmentally friendly.

Kirker is part of UCI’s Community Scholars Program, which pairs students with community organizations to address housing, economic development and environmental concerns.

With the help of the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce, Kirker recently created an environmental sustainability questionnaire and distributed it to 600 small businesses in Laguna Beach, including restaurants and hotels. She hopes the information collected will lead to more recycling, energy conservation and increased employee training in these areas.

“My real interest is bringing together environmentalism and job development,” Kirker says. “There is so much news coverage of ‘green jobs’ in energy industries, but I think we also should focus on highly visible areas such as food service and hospitality.”

Kirker chose Laguna Beach as a research site because of the city’s reputation as an environmentally friendly enclave. The city joined the U.S. Conference of Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement in 2007, pledging to focus on renewable energy sources and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. The coastal town was among the first in Orange County to ban the use of Styrofoam containers in its restaurants.

Kirker visited the city’s first “green hotel” to learn how hospitality industry businesses can reduce resource consumption. Seven4One, a boutique hotel in the city, uses drought-resistant native plants and hires local employees, many of whom walk or bike to work, according to managing director Daniel Sussman.

Victor Becerra, director of the UCI Community Outreach Partnership Center, coordinates the Community Scholars Program. He says projects such as Kirker’s demonstrate the center’s commitment to strengthening relations between the university and surrounding communities.

Says Kirker: “I’m encouraged by businesses that are maintaining good environmental practices. If I can work with them to increase their use of locally grown products or set up carpooling programs, that would be a great success.”