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Maurice Sampson

Maurice Sampson has had a long life of environmental activism and action. His current position is Eastern PA Director for Clean Water Action where he is putting what he has learned from these experiences to work. His career has included running a non-profit youth environmental organization, setting up municipal recycling programs in Newark, NJ and Philadelphia, PA, and being an entrepreneur on the cutting-edge of recycling, waste reduction, and composting.  Commitment to service, protection of the environment, and innovation have been common themes in all of these endeavors. Maurice reflects that he always seems to be in the right place at the right time to use his skills and talents in collaboration with others to make a difference.

Getting Started

When Maurice was 20 years old (1974), a journalist named Tilly Spetgang wrote a story in the Philadelphia Bulletin called “The Pied Piper.” It is a poignant piece that speaks to self-discovery and realization through environmental activism. Maurice was a 16 year old jock when a football injury made him take a leave of absence, coincidentally close to the first Earth Day ever celebrated. He was invited to attend a meeting of the student environmental group and immediately got hooked. When a forest near his home in New Jersey (known as the “Magic Forest”) was threatened with development, Maurice took a leading role in targeting the forest to be saved and helped form the Cherry Hill Environmental Action Committee. In the end, funding from the Green Acres Program provided the alternative to development and the “Magic Forest” has been preserved now for almost 50 years. Stockton State University gave Maurice the freedom to pursue environmental work in a way that most traditional colleges would not. The university was built in the pinelands of New Jersey and had pass/fail classes instead of a numeric grading system. He was allowed to design his own degree and was able to develop and teach a course he called “Environmental Action Workshop.” The class began with a trip on a small airplane the flew a loop over South Jersey so students could see areas they wanted to save. “At one point you could only see the trees in the pinelands,” Maurice described, “and on the coast, you could see how vast and important the marshlands are.” The class explored issues around agriculture, the coastline and ocean, the pinelands, and waste management. Their goal was to “understand what was going on and come up with a strategy to address the problems.”

The Work

Much of Maurice's early environmental work was performed through organizations he led in High School and College and always in concert with students at other schools. Upon graduation from Stockton State University, he co-founded an organization called the Youth Environmental Society (YES) where he served as it first Executive Director (1977 to 1982). Under his leadership the organization sponsored “Earth Care” seminars: workshops led by environmental leaders, hosted at five different colleges for high school students across New Jersey. The workshops were designed to motivate students to organize and run their own projects and organizations at their respective schools. It took three years to achieve the goal -- in that year all schools sent representatives of student organizations and in a sharing session, “One student stood up and said we should organize between high schools.” Maurice moved on from his YES position to take the job as recycling coordinator for Newark, it was one of the first urban recycling programs in the country. This experience gave Maurice a business perspective in addressing environmental issues because it was driven by the industry demand for materials like paper, steel, and scrap metal to produce new products. He and the other newly appointed recycling coordinators in New Jersey had to develop methodologies for collecting residential recyclables including curbside pickup. “The industries said, if you can meet our quality standards, we’ll buy it from you.” The recycling coordinator challenge was to develop a method that was no more expensive than trash disposal. In the mid-80s, Maurice took a job as the first recycling coordinator in Philadelphia. The City Mayor’s first priority was to get an incinerator, and he hoped that including recycling would achieve that goal. Maurice came in thinking it was a great opportunity, but the City Council never approved the incinerator. No matter what Maurice tried, he encountered institutional resistance and frequently found himself at odds with his colleagues. “Between 1985 and 1987 the stress was really intense,” Maurice recalled. Despite the challenges, Maurice and his staff were able to establish well-functioning pilot programs which led over time to citywide curbside collection by 2010. In 1987, Maurice changed his position from recycling coordinator to consultant to the City of Philadelphia. This eventually led to 20 years of entrepreneurship including starting and running his own business, Niche Recycling. During this time Maurice served as a board member for Clean Water Action, a national organization whose mission is to protect the environment, health, economic well-being, and community quality of life. Operating 16 offices, the organization “organizes strong grassroots groups and coalitions, and campaigns to elect environmental candidates and to solve environmental and community problems. In 2016 Maurice was hired as a consultant as the Acting Director of the Clean Water Action’s Philadelphia office, and upon the election of President Donald Trump, decided to assume the position full time

"My success is because I pick my battles, work in collaboration with allies, and persevere until we have met our goals."

Environmental Justice

The focus of Maurice’s work today is through the lens of environmental justice. First expressed in the 1987 benchmark report, “Toxic and Race,” the term environmental justice was coined in response to the report’s findings that the single most consistent finding in the siting of toxic facilities was race; regardless of income or class, the presence of African Americans was so prevalent that it could have been mistaken as criteria. This was described as environmental racism and the need for environmental justice for communities of color that are disproportionately impacted by pollution. From Maurice’s perspective, environmental justice represents an evolution of the traditional environmental movement by focusing on environmental protection to include issues of health and the quality of life for all human beings. “Let’s consider plastics as an environmental justice example. Plastics are synthetic developed by science to mimic and replace natural materials. Every phase of plastic production is toxic including extraction, transportation, processing, use, and disposal, plastics are dangerous to the environment and our health. One of the most egregious examples is found in an eighty-five-mile stretch along the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Baton Rouge with over 200 petrochemical plants and refineries, accounting for 25% of the petrochemical production in the United States The area is dominated by and African American population who suffer from an abundance of cancers." “Environmentalists have played a major role in the current pandemic of plastics,” Maurice states. Back in 1982, half of the waste stream was glass, paper, and metal, with the remaining waste consisting of organics. “Environmentalists thought with the passage of container deposit legislation or ‘bottle bills' they would force soft drink and beer distributors to reintroduce refillable containers. Not only would supply chains not accommodate a return to refillables, the redemption requirement to transport heavy, unbroken bottles facilitated the market switch from glass to plastic containers representing more than half of all food containers." Maurice and the recycling coordinators predicted this would lead to the eventual displacement of recyclable glass and metal containers to plastics. These warnings fell on deaf ears. A representative of the Environmental Defense Fund gave the response, “We can win this. We will deal with the problem of plastics later.” For a nice history of bottle bills, see A Pocket History of Bottle Recycling. Maurice stressed that recycling plastic is essentially a myth. “Between 1950-2009 and 2009-2012, the same amount of plastic was made. This kind of J-curve is unsustainable. Only 9% has been recycled and as the myth that it’s recyclable grows, public opinion has fallen considerably. “A recent study shows that the amount of recycled plastic is even lower than his estimate, coming in at just 5%.” (NPR).


Every project Maurice has worked on has succeeded because he decided not to allow himself to get overwhelmed. “My success is because I pick my battles, work in collaboration with allies, and persevere until we have met our goals.” According to Maurice, the work is not a sprint, it is a marathon relay race and we each need to “carry the baton, and hand it off so others can run the next lap. No single person can win alone. We have a great American myth: that one person saves the world. It’s in everything. All of our movies, stories, etc. We think everything is going to fall apart unless one person saves the world.” While he finds Bruce Willis movies entertaining, Maurice urges everyone to work together to strive for goals you can achieve. He firmly believes that this is the only way to success. Maurice also has decades of insight into the political divisions surrounding environmentalism. “Environmental protection comes from a conservative ethos,” he explained. “Our earliest supporters were conservative Republicans.” People forget that Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act into law in 1970. Maurice believes the division really began during the Reagan presidential campaign. “Environmentalists were so scared of Reagan’s rhetoric that they threw all of their support behind the Democrats. Republicans who had supported environmental efforts for years were thrown under the bus. I saw a case where one Republican who had founded several environmental groups went up against a Democrat with no track record, and the environmentalists supported the Democrat.” Maurice feels as though this was a turning point, when Republicans stopped supporting environmental groups and environmentalism was relegated to a ‘libral’ issue and rejected without consideration. He urges people not to make the same mistake and to be willing to work with others who want to solve environmental problems, even if their politics are different than your own.

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