Local Self Reliance: Municipal Composting

Despite a lack of state or federal support, the city of Altoona, Pennsylvania had been practicing a form of local self-reliance since the 1950s through its municipal composting system.

| March/April 1980

For the past several years, the good folks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Washington, D.C. have worked to help urban residents gain greater control over their lives through the use of low-technology, decentralist tools and concepts. We strongly believe that more people (city dwellers and country folk alike) should be exposed to the Institute's admirable efforts.  

Altoona, Pennsylvania isn't the kind of city that brings to mind visions of an ecological utopia . . . but for the past 27 years this industrial city in the Allegheny Mountains has been quietly running a municipal composting system. The process not only turns a good portion of Altoona's organic waste into a valuable, environmentally sound product, but also conserves a number of resources that are in short supply ... including soil, energy, and landfill space.

Voluntary Compliance

Almost any city in the country could follow Altoona's example. Unfortunately, few towns even consider such action. Instead, most communities burn, dump, and landfill almost 100 million tons of potential soil builder each year . . . at a cost of $3.5 billion (which doesn't even include the environmental cost of polluted water and air).

And, although it's not an absolute success, the Altoona project does work. The city pays the cost of collecting the 25-50 tons of organics which 18,000 of its households voluntarily separate from their other throw-aways each day. Once it's sorted and decomposed, this material produces between six and ten tons of useful compost.

Recently, a private contractor (Fairfield Engineering, Inc.) began to process the waste with the aim of selling the end product ... mostly to farmers and gardeners within 300 miles of the city. The company also hopes, by using new machinery and markets, to expand the Altoona operation and start new projects in other cities as well.

Wasteful Indifference

Municipal composting's biggest problems, however, have little to do with the technology of producing the material, or even with finding suitable commercial outlets for the organic matter. The real difficulty lies in the fact that — before such a practice can become widespread — social attitudes toward garbage have to change.

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