As Maurice M. Sampson II embarks on what could be a substantial game-changer in the unattractive yet critical realm of food-waste disposal, a "painful" reminder of an earlier failure in his 30-year recycling career sits behind his Mount Airy home:
A bottle crusher, designed to significantly reduce Philadelphia tavern owners' waste and their costs to get rid of it. It could have made Sampson some serious cash.
But a 1996 pilot project launched by Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. to roll out as many as 600 crushers in Philadelphia-area bars by the end of 1997 managed to get only 50 installed before the brewer divested its recycling ventures.
Sampson's firm, Niche Recycling Inc., was incorporated in 1995 to administer the program for Anheuser-Busch, charging bar owners $100 a month for a crusher, training, and glass removal. Each crusher could reduce a bar's waste 78 percent, or by a trash bin's worth for every 30 cases of beer.
When Anheuser-Busch bowed out, Sampson said, he could not put together the financing to buy enough crushers - he figured he needed 200 - for a bottle-smashing venture of his own.
"Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground," Sampson said matter-of-factly last week, quoting a James Taylor song.
But he has gotten over it. He thinks he is onto something way bigger. And so, it seems, do some of the city's green-technology advocates.
On Oct. 28, Mayor Nutter announced that an $18,500 grant - one of three awarded under the Greenworks Pilot Energy Technology Program (G-PET) - would go to another Sampson entity, Niche Waste Reduction & Recycling Systems Inc.
The funding is intended to help Sampson and his partners modify a unique composting trash bin developed in Australia to meet U.S. regulatory requirements, said Jim Gambino, who heads energy and strategy programs for Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania, a G-PET sponsor along with the city and Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp.
"It really engenders energy efficiency and the reduction of greenhouse gases," Gambino said, explaining why the project won funding.
The usually loquacious Sampson was unwilling to say too much about his latest trash obsession in an interview last week. He said he did not want others ripping off the idea before he and his associates had a chance to perfect their product and get it on the U.S. market.
What he would say is that Niche is one of two companies authorized to sell the BiobiN in this country. The goal over the next year is to place and test five of the food-composting units - which are nearly identical in appearance to a typical commercial trash receptacle, and reportedly odorless.
The difference has to do with wood chips, an oxygen source, and an airtight lid that provide a nurturing environment for converting food waste into fertilizer or stock for biofuel.
Two BiobiNs are already in use in the Philadelphia area, but Sampson would not say where. Likely users would be hotels, restaurants, schools, institutions, supermarkets, and convenience stores.
G-PET's grant will allow a third bin to be set up, somewhere on the University of Pennsylvania campus, Sampson said - already a known, and acclaimed, entity there for his consulting work.
Philadelphia's recycling coordinator from 1985 to 1987, Sampson said one local business testing the BiobiN had reported trash-hauling savings of $800 a month. Depending on what's tossed in - say, lots of vegetables and little meat and bones - the composting trash bin could go as long as six weeks before needing to be hauled off to a processing plant. Typically, commercial trash bins are emptied twice a week.
"The only person who loses is the hauler," Sampson said without a trace of sympathy.
If the bins are embraced by commercial establishments, Sampson said, the ripple effect could be far-reaching. A local company is already working on bin modifications. Other businesses would be needed to clean the receptacles and the trucks that move the food waste and resulting composting material.
Sampson is allowing himself to think big:
"We have 45 colleges within 25 miles of Philadelphia. I don't know how much food waste that is, but I wouldn't want to see the pile."
At an edge of the Penn campus sits the Radian, a 14-story complex of student housing, stores, and restaurants with a cutting-edge waste-management system influenced by Sampson. He thinks it would make the perfect place for a BiobiN.
As he led a tour of the facility's waste-management features, from the garbage disposals in the apartments to the recycling chutes on each floor, Sampson stopped into a Chipolte Mexican restaurant.
Apprentice manager Ian Sampson (no relation) was intrigued when told of the possibility of BiobiN landing there.
"We're looking forward to it," he said, noting that four cases of avocados had been scooped out that morning for guacamole, their skins headed for the trash.
Not that Maurice Sampson, 56, plans to retire on food composting. There is that bottle-crushing machine behind his house.
"After we get the BiobiNs up and running," said the irrepressible entrepreneur, "I may just make a return to this product and see what is possible in 2010 that I could not make happen in 1995."