Emergency Waste Sanitation: How to Keep Your Crap From Piling Up?

Previously we’ve discussed how to find alternative toilet paper, but without a functional sewage system where are you going to do your business? Sewage is nasty stuff when you don’t have a sanitary place to deposit it, and it attracts flies and diseases that could very well kill you and your family. Thankfully, there are a variety of ways to deal with your waste, depending on the situation you find yourself in.

If You’re on a Septic System

This is the easiest of them all. You don’t have a sewage system to worry about, so you should be able to use the toilet like normal provided you have access to sufficient water.

Simply fill the tank with water manually, do your business, then flush away as per usual. Of course unless you also have access to a river, pond, stream, or have a manually pumped well you’ll have a hard time finding water for drinking much less flushing. In that case, conserve water and use other means of disposing of your waste.

outhouse door

If You’re Connected to a Town Sewer

If the sewer main (the pipe that delivers water throughout a large area) is damaged, backed up, or otherwise not functioning owing to an emergency do not flush your toilet!

The sewer will be rapidly filling up with unpumped sewage, and flushing will cause filthy water to rise up into your toilet and through the pipes leading to your spigots, tubs, and sinks as well. However, be aware that the sewage can still be forced up your pipes through sheer volume even if you avoid flushing. You can either install a backflow prevention valve that cuts off your access to the sewage system completely or sandbag your toilet, faucets etc and plug them up to prevent sewage from dripping out. The backflow valve can be somewhat expensive but it also keeps the water already in your pipes clean as a bonus, and is plenty useful even during a minor flood or other small disaster that might disrupt water services.


One little device can be the difference between clean pipes and a nasty, nasty mess.

backflow preventer

If You Must Make an Outdoor Latrine and Have Sufficient Land

This applies primarily for people out in the country, since the sheer level of population density and lack of easily turnable earth in a city or large town would make most outdoor latrines unfeasible and contaminate nearby groundwater.

In a short term emergency, you have several options:

Cat holes. If you just imagined a cat digging a hole in kitty litter, good! That’s exactly what you’ll be doing. Dig a small, shallow hole, do your business, then immediately cover the hole up with the loose earth. To reduce the chance of contamination, spread the cat holes out over a wide area and put them in sunny places where decomposition will be quickest.

A simple trench like this one is common in places without plumbing.

Trench Latrine. Dig a trench at least 2 feet wide, 1 foot deep, and 2 feet long, placing the loose earth in a convenient spot close by. If you have a large group (5-10 people) you will obviously want to expand the size of the trench in order to deal with the increased waste. You can set a foot on either side of the hole and squat, or create a seat by placing two smooth boards a little bit apart. Since this will effectively become a bathroom, you will want to setup a simple privacy partition made up of stakes and a sheet or tarp tied to them. Always be sure to dump a little fresh earth on your most recent leavings from the pile of loose dirt to keep the smell down and deter disease-carrying flies.

After they become filled, they should be covered with a final layer of earth and a new trench dug.

The Outhouse. An old country classic, you basically dig a deeper trench latrine and build a small building over the top of the pit. With proper waste composting techniques such as the addition of sawdust or peat moss, these can become permanent toilets that do not need to be cleaned out or pumped unless they are build on thick clay soils that cannot properly absorb urine and will eventually fill up. The more people who plan on using the outhouse, the deeper it will need to be: no outhouse should be less than 3.5 feet deep for 1-2 people, with additional feet added per person.

waste sanitation

Rules for all Outdoor Waste Disposal Pits

Always keep any waste hole, no matter how small, at least 200 feet away from all open bodies of water like streams and lakes.

If you have to make a new latrine, build it as far away from the initial latrine as possible to keep contamination down.

If you have a high water table, you may not be able to employ these methods as the risk of contamination would be too great.

Do not place holes within 200 feet of any area where rain runoff collects.

Keep your latrines far away from underground wells, and ensure that you are always downhill from these wells to prevent runoff contamination.

If You’re in a Place Unsuited to Outdoor Waste Disposal

Cities, towns, and even suburbs are terrible places for outdoor latrines owing to their high populations. Even areas out in the country can be bad for outdoor toilets if you have an easily contaminated high water table that you will be relying on for drinking and bathing. In such a case, you’ll want to employ one of these methods.

The Trash Bag Toilet Attachment. After emptying the toilet bowl as much as possible, you simply put a trash bag under the toilet seat and fill it with sawdust, wood ashes, quicklime, or even kitty litter to reduce the smell and flies. More litter should be added after each use, and then the trashbag can be securely tied off and stored in a temporary container like a 5 gallon bucket. In the event of a localized natural disaster you’ll usually be able to send these bags in with the usual garbage by special emergency orders from the local government, but in a long-term emergency you’ll need to dispose of them yourself in a safe location. If you wish, you can just setup the 5 gallon bucket with the trash bag and use it directly, with two boards setup for a toilet seat.

A Composting Toilet. These are non-electric, typically using some manner of chemical or organic bacteria packets that rapidly break down the waste you deposit into the specially designed toilet. These are great for infrequent use, but unfortunately they don’t typically have enough time to properly process waste in the event that you have several people using it multiple times a day. Consider them a potential way to reduce the amount of waste you have to dispose of via the trash bag method.

And there you have it, many different methods for disposing of all that crap that piles up during an emergency. Sanitation is a major killer in the Third-World and even more so when a bunch of First-Worlders get tossed into the Stone Age and the water shuts off. Be sure that you are ready for every eventuality…including the disgusting ones!

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