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COLLEGE STATION --

When it comes to first impressions and the Texas A&M University Chemistry Building, most people notice the dramatic external staircase -- a memorable assent regardless of the season or reason. Or, once inside, the foyer featuring walls of dark Russian marble accented by period light fixtures illuminating a ceiling dominated by intricately painted gold grillwork.

Or the interior staircase leading to the building's historical heart and soul, the Arthur E. Martell Lecture Hall -- site of generations of introductory chemistry classes and educational outreach experiences related to the elemental science that calls this building and the surrounding (if not entirely connecting) complex home.

Rita Silbernagel '15 noticed the lack of recycling containers.

As a graduate student in the Department of Chemistry whose research focuses on waste recovery and recycling, Silbernagel also couldn't help but notice the dichotomy, along with the impression such a key omission was making on other visitors, including prospective faculty and graduate students like herself.

"Currently, there are less than 15 recycling containers placed within the three buildings chemistry primarily encompasses -- Chemistry, Reed McDonald and Heldenfelds," Silbernagel said. "Containers are not conveniently located and, therefore, recycling is limited. Many paper products, cans and bottles end up in the trash.

"I feel that the chemistry department has an obligation to increase recycling rates. Our students are told about the energy savings from recycling aluminum cans, and in fact, the freshmen complete an experiment where they actually go through the long process of recycling a can. If that is the mission of the chemistry department, then I feel it is a bit hypocritical to not have a full recycling program implemented. Many faculty in the department believe this does a disservice to our image, and I wanted this poor image to end."

Last fall, Silbernagel decided to take matters into her own hands, resulting in an $11,000 grant from the Aggie Green Fund to bring a new color-coded recycling system to the three aforementioned buildings. Her successful proposal, which was approved earlier this month, calls for two durable gray Rubbermaid receptacles placed next to every trash can. The lids will be color-coded -- maroon for cans and bottles; white for paper products -- to allow for ease in separation in addition to convenient access.

"I have always had a passion for recycling and restoring the environment," Silbernagel said. "I was inspired to write this grant because I felt that recycling opportunities were being overlooked in the chemistry complex. There are approximately 10,000 to 20,000 students who enter Chemistry, Reed McDonald and Heldenfelds on a daily basis. These buildings are ideal to reach a large amount of students from all majors, not just chemistry.

"The chemistry department is on the cutting edge of science, so we should have an advanced recycling system to fit the caliber of the department. When I heard about the Aggie Green Fund grant program, I was absolutely thrilled because I knew this was my opportunity to help the chemistry department update their recycling system."

For her part now that the grant has been awarded, Silbernagel is in charge of the design, ordering and shipping of 100 receptacles from FP Site Furnishings, a female-owned, Texas-based company whose clients include Disney parks as well as the University of Minnesota, which piloted the color-coded recycling containers more than 20 years ago and is where Silbernagel earned her bachelor's degree.

"I like the idea of recycling because it reduces waste sent to landfills, makes efficient use of energy and natural resources by reusing materials, and lowers waste management costs," Silbernagel said. "This project is also important because recycling and efficiency are big aspects of my chemistry projects with advisors Drs. Abraham Clearfield and Janet Bluemel."

While Silbernagel is spearheading the effort, she says it's a true partnership -- one involving Ron Carter as assistant department head and building manager, who will help with placement and implementation decisions, upkeep and other issues integral to the ongoing campaign; Clearfield as her advisor, who is allowing her to devote a few hours each week to the project from her ion exchange-related research duties within his laboratory; and the Graduate Student Association of Chemistry (GSAC), who will help promote the new recycling containers via their website.

"It is wonderful to see graduate students take such an active role in outreach and service," said Dr. Simon W. North, graduate advisor and associate head of the Department of Chemistry. "This recycling project reflects an extraordinary individual effort by Rita in both securing the initial grant and working with Ron to implement her proposal."

Silbernagel notes that, ultimately, it will be the student body as a whole who will be responsible for placing recyclables in the proper receptacles and not in the trash. And she's confident it's a challenge that will be accepted, considering it was the student body who in 2009 approved raising their individual per-semester fees by $3 to create the Aggie Green Fund, generating $300,000 annually in support of sustainability and improved environmental services on campus

"The Aggie Green Fund is a wonderful organization that aims to improve the day-to-day lives of all Aggies," Silbernagel said. "The filtered water fountains and outdoor recycling receptacles this organization has installed across campus are successful demonstrations of how 'greening' our campus is not only environmentally responsible, but also provides significant, measurable financial benefits. The organization listens to students and staff when making decisions that improve the look and feel to the Texas A&M Aggie experience. I feel they are an asset to our university, and that the Aggie Green Fund represents an excellent example of the spirit and leadership unique to our student body.

"Recycling can be done by anyone. It is one way that any person can give back to their community, industry and the Earth. Recycling can also improve the local and regional economies, both directly and indirectly. And this type of selfless dedication to our fellow Aggies is exactly what Texas A&M requires to remain at its best."

Please watch for updates on Silbernagel's recycling program and related efforts underway in the Texas A&M Department of Chemistry at http://www.chem.tamu.edu.

To learn more about the Aggie Green Fund, visit http://greenfund.tamu.edu/.

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About Texas A&M Impacts: Texas A&M Impacts is an ongoing series highlighting the significant contributions of Texas A&M University students, faculty, staff and former students to their community, state, nation and world. To learn more about the series and see additional impacts, visit http://impacts.tamu.edu/.

-aTm-

Contact: Shana K. Hutchins, (979) 862-1237 or shutchins@science.tamu.edu or Rita M. Silbernagel, (979) 845-2936 or rita.silbernagel@chem.tamu.edu

Hutchins Shana

  • Chemist With a Cause

    Texas A&M University chemistry graduate student Rita Silbernagel '15 is spearheading an $11,000 grant from the Aggie Green Fund that will bring 100 new recycling containers to the Chemistry, Reed McDonald and Heldenfelds buildings and help put the Department of Chemistry on par with other campus leaders in environmental and sustainability efforts. (Credit: Rita Silbernagel.)

  • Contained Convenience

    An example of what the recycling containers might look like, but with maroon and white (versus yellow) color-coded lids to match Texas A&M's school colors, as opposed to the University of Minnesota's, where Silbernagel earned her bachelor's degree. (Credit: Rita Silbernagel.)

  • In addition to writing the grant proposal, Silbernagel also designed the logo that will appear on the recycling containers. (Credit: Rita Silbernagel.)

  • Historic Impressions

    The historic Texas A&M Chemistry Building, built in 1929 as a shining jewel of fundamental scientific education and research, along with its monumental staircase (below) etched in many a student's, faculty's, staff member's and visitor's memory. (Credit: Igor Kraguljac.)

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