Urban Alcohol Fuel Production

Although it had caught on in rural areas first, by the early 1980s urban areas were starting to investigate the potential of alcohol fuel production as well.

| January/February 1981

067 alcohol fuel - Fotolia

The hundreds of tons of bruised or spoiled produce discarded by supermarkets every day could become part of the feedstock in an urban alcohol fuel operation. 


Rural folks have been paying a lot of attention to alcohol fuel recently, and now even a few urban residents are getting into the act. Such a move is only natural, too, since our cities produce tons of organic waste each day ... refuse that could be used as raw material in the making of alcohol. In fact—when paper waste is added to the "garbage tally"—a typical metropolis's trash "stream" is made up of almost 70% organic material!

Throughout the entire business of food transportation, processing, preparation, and consumption—much of which takes place in or near large cities—a tremendous amount of waste is produced, and then often disposed of at considerable expense. For example, supermarkets routinely discard bruised or spoiled produce from the shipments they receive, sometimes tossing out as much as 200 pounds of rich organic material a day!  

Such a large untapped source of potential "mash" would seem to indicate that urban production of alcohol fuel is an immediately viable course of action ... but there are certain problems to be resolved before cities can become active ethanol production factories.

For example, municipal waste paper is relatively easy to collect, but its high cellulosic content makes it, as yet, generally unsuitable for alcohol fuel production. Other wastes—such as cheese whey —are usually free for the taking, but hauling costs are sometimes so high that such products must be considered unprofitable raw materials unless their source is located within 40 miles of the alcohol fuel plant.

Another factor that will help determine the future of urban alcohol production is demand, both for the ethanol itself and for the byproducts of the fermentation process. Farms provide their own constant market for the alcohol fuel they produce, while leftover mash is used to feed livestock. The urban market isn't quite that flexible. Many potential purchasers in metropolitan areas would insist that the fuel be made anhydrous (completely without water), so it could be mixed with gasoline to make gasohol. Such a process is, of course, more expensive and energy-intensive than is simply producing 170- to 180-proof ethanol.

Cities can create demands for alcohol fuel, however, by converting entire transportation fleets—such as taxis, postal cars and trucks, and municipal governments' motor pools—to ethanol use. If the vehicles were all modified at the same time—and if a base station were established to dispense the fuel—a constant demand for pure ethanol could be assured.

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