Sanitation—When You Gotta Go

While the thought of waste management isn’t sexy or glamorous, I wouldn’t be doing anyone any favors if I didn’t teach about sanitation in greater detail. So here are a few things that you’ve just GOT to know about do-it-yourself sanitation for a prolonged period of time.

Sorry to have to say this, but human waste is a huge danger in a disaster.

Many folks will just give up on any semblance of sanitation in desperate circumstances. When I lived in the Philippines, it was nothing to see a woman stop where she was going and crouch down and urinate wherever she stood. It was also common for people to simply throw their human waste out their windows…as if it was now marked as someone else’s problem. Now picture what may happen if someone lives in a high rise apartment in the center of a city not being able to flush their toilets for a week. They aren’t just going to hold it, right? I guarantee that “civilization” as you know it will cease when it comes to waste disposal. But wait. There’s even better news. A person who is healthy and has regular bowel movements produces two to three pints of urine daily and one pound of feces per day. I don’t even want to think about what happens when someone is sick from eating unsafe food, or stressed out. Ugh. And that’s just ONE person.

Flies photo c/o

Flies photo c/o

As shared previously, one small area of poor sanitation can kill everyone within a 50 mile radius. So it’s critical that you’re just as diligent with your sanitation preparedness as you are your food, water, and shelter. How can a bad sanitation area kill so many in such a wide area? The perpetrators are rodents, flies, and bacteria. Bad bacteria can travel three hundred feet from the original site of “yuck.” Flies live to spread feces and such from one place to another. And rodents are attracted to it as well. If they go in, they go out, and they then take the death germs with them. Sounds awful, doesn’t it? So you’ve got be mindful of not creating a festival of killer bacteria in the first place.

There’s quite the cocktail of formidable germs lurking in a human waste area. Streptococcus, staphylococcus, E. coli and shigella bacteria, some salmonella, Norwalk virus, hepatitis A virus, the common cold virus, and various sexually transmitted organisms.

Immediately after a power outage you may still be able to use your sewer system by pouring water directly into the toilet bowl. But this method uses up a lot of valuable water and you run the risk of having sewage in your home when the home system backs up. I wouldn’t recommend living long term that way. Instead, plug the toilet up with a tennis ball to avoid sewage coming out in the event of a blockage. And then set up alternative waste disposal options.

Trench illustration c/o

Trench illustration c/o

One option is to dig a trench. Your trench should be 2 feet wide, at the very minimum, 1 food deep and four feet long or more. More importantly it should be FAR way from any type of living arrangements—especially FOOD! Since the bacteria can travel 300 feet, you might want to think about having your trench that far way from your living area. After each trench use, cover the area with dirt, lime, wood ash, I-Pee, or ChemiSan. Also, I recommend sprinkling a bit of diatomaceous earth (DE) after each use as it will keep the flies and other insects away, and thus further prevent the spreading of germs. (Note: Human waste should NEVER be used as compost for food gardens.) The downside of digging the trench is that it takes up vital physical energy. Thus some of the simpler methods may be necessary instead.

Another option is to use a 5-gallon bucket with a toilet seat lid. After each use, be sure to layer it with one of the aforementioned items. ChemiSan has biodegradable bags that you can use to line the 5-gallon buckets with. This will enable you to take the bags, bury them and know that you haven’t furthered the contamination in your area. (Check their site to find distributors in your area.) For our readiness, we have lots of heavy duty plastic bags, DE, and lime on hand specifically for this purpose.

Whatever method you use, try to construct a covering/shelter for the area. This isn’t just about dignity and privacy. Germs in feces can be propelled through the air easily. Thus, leaving the waste area immediately after applying the covering of dirt, lime, etc is important. Having some type of a door or at least a plastic sheeting is a good idea as well.

Be sure that everyone is diligent in cleaning their hands for at least 20 seconds after using the facilities. The same goes if you are changing a baby or elderly diaper. Be sure to get in between the fingers and under the fingernails each time you wash your hands. If you’re relegated to using hand-sanitizer, be sure to apply enough to be just as thorough as you would if you had soap and running water.

Boil cloth diapers to clean them. Photo c/o

Boil cloth diapers to clean them. Photo c/o

When disposing of disposable feminine products, they should be burned after use, not put with the other waste in the trench or bucket. The same goes for disposable diapers. However, cloth diapers and their pins should be boiled, then bleached, and then exposed to the sun for a couple of hours. (Do NOT use your solar oven for this sanitation purpose)

And lastly, you may want to invest in room deodorizers now while you can get them frequently for FREE with coupons. While you may not fathom being able to use 6 cans of Febreeze now, you’ll be grateful that you have it when your “community” is forced to take care of business the early 1900’s way.

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Or Construction waste trash bags. Very heavy duty plastic on those.

This is really good advice. In any disaster that I have heard about, sanitation has been one of the biggest problems, if not the biggest. Multiply that by thousands of people in a small area, and it becomes major. Then add animals. Here in the U.S., we have been very lucky.

Thank you for posting this. It's something we all need to be aware of, and prepare for.

I have one of the buckets with a toilet lid fixture. How deep (or not deep) should you bury a bag full of waste? Wouldn't that affect the water supply if done incorrectly?
I also worry about the 300 foot range--if you live in a regular neighborhood, the farthest distance from your neighbor's house may be closer to yours....Thank you for the information.

I'm doomed. We live in the city and can't even get people to pick up after walking their dogs under normal conditions. Our lots are tiny - not enough distance for a trench. And a fire to sanitize means all our houses are up in flames. I'm getting on a plane to Utah... so when you hear... Kellene, Kellene, Kellene - you'll know we made it.

And I'll welcome you with open arms, Kris. :-)

Yup, you've got some great points there Marie. You want it at least a foot deep when you bury it. But it certainly does give pause for concern if you live in an urban community. You can always just keep sealing and loading up those 5 gallon buckets. *ick*

Everyone makes some really good points. I don't have a yard to really bury waste in. But there is an empty lot across the street. What would you recommend people do with their waste in a shelter in place type situation?

Wow Kellene, what great advice! Never really thought about sanitation. One more thing to add to my list. Thank you as always.

One of my biggest fears in a disaster is dealing with my kids' diapers. I have several months' supply of disposable diapers, but I'm wondering if cloth diapers would be less hassle (such as trying to burn a fire in the dead of winter in the snow). Do you just scrape and bury the waste from cloth diapers and dispose of it like other human waste? And how long do you have to boil them? How much bleach to sanitize them? And where can I buy cloth diapers and pins? Sorry for so many questions. This entry raised way too many icky but important questions.

We have a septic tank and live at the lake...we are not water front so we would have to go get lake water or collect rain water to pour in the toilet. This should be ok. When you say you have heavy duty plastic bags are you talking about ones you got from chemiSan or what kind do you have.?

For cloth diapers, tear up old sheets, towels or rags, and make diaper liners. When there's poo, just throw it away with the other family waste in your trench or hole. Otherwise wash them with the diapers. Diapers can be made from flannel if you can't find any to buy.

you make a very good point about the waste...I would be interested in knowing about the "heavy duty bags" as well ...I checked out Chemisan and think I would like to find a cheaper way to go...thanks again for making us think....

Believer, I wouldn't recommend doing that. The fabric won't decompose properly. Either burn it or use an alternative material.

Sorry. I should have clarified that. I'm talking about the heavy duty yard bags that are extra durable. You can use those and lime/ash/ etc. and still have them strong enough to remove from the bucket as they get full.

Just add enough bleach so that you smell it in the water. (About 1/4 cup per gallon should be PLENTY.) You can "cook" them at 180 degrees for about 15 minutes and that will kill the bacteria.

Oh, and I've found a lot of success doing a internet search on diapers/pins throughout the year.

High tail it to a place where you CAN dispose of waste. Worst case scenario, you can have a whole lot of buckets and fill them up and then seal them. But that will get old REAL fast! I hope this article has helped you all realize that you've got to plan for these kinds of things, even if it means planning on bugging out to another location in order to ensure your health.

Years ago, I was able to purchase first a house trailer and later, 5 acres of land. When I moved the trailer to the land, I had no septic system, no electricity, no phone, and no water.

One thing that I bought (and have kept) is a port-a-potty. It doesn't take up much more room than a 5 gallon bucket. Plus it separates into two sections to empty and clean it.

It has a 1 gal reservoir for "flushing" (sometimes I didn't both to fill that section) and a 5 gal "holding area" that has an outside indicator to show how full it is. It has both a carrying handle integrated into it and an "emptying" handle to control the bottom section of the potty while emptying it. It has a regular seat on it to sit on, a place for the TP, if you use tp - we use "family cloths". It was easy to empty into a nice deeply dug hole.

The nice thing about them is that until you quickly open the slot between the bottom of the potty and the holding tank to let the wastes drop through, there is no smell to use it. You don't have to worry about running out of plastic bags. You don't have to worry about the SMELL of an open container - a 5 gal bucket, with or without a lid WILL STINK EVERY TIME YOU OPEN IT TO USE IT!! Nor will you have to worry about the bag springing a leak or it breaking as you try to get it out of the bucket, nor worry as you pry off the lid of a bucket about splashing the contents on yourself.
When you empty the port-a-potty, you use a smaller spout while pushing an easily accessed air port, so again, very little if any back-splashing.

The one thing I would suggest is to NOT use tp IN a port-a-potty. It makes it harder to empty.

My cost was about $45 in 1984. I've seen them in Wallyworld for about $80. Mine weighs about 3 lbs. empty and about 30 lbs when it's nearly full. (A 5 gal bucket will also weigh that much when full!) Not something I would carry if I had to hike out, but wonderful if you're going by car or sheltering-in-place.

A disclaimer to go with the above comment. I have not association whatsoever with any portable potty company or retailer. Just 4 years of living on land with no septic tank, electricity or running water.

Those are things that I never thought of. You are so right though. I am definitely submitting this to Stumbleupon and Twitter. You've given me much food for thought and other items to add to my list of must have emergency things. Thank you for being a wealth of information.

I cloth diaper my daughter and most diapers don't need any pins anymore because of how great the covers are that you put over top (no more plastic pants!). As far as the feces, you should dispose of it with other waste materials. If you want, they do make rice paper liners that will biodegrade. There are lots of sites available. can give you lots of information and tips.,,,, and lots of other places carry cloth. Good luck in this step of your preparedness!

Thanks for this article on sanitation. I'm currently reading one of your favs, 'Alas, Babylon'. Even though not much is being said about sanitation, reading this article along with the book is helping me see the greater picture. Living in a neighborhood of apartment complexs is helping me see the bigger picture. I heard someone suggest baking soda would work, instead of the lime..can you clarify?

Baking soda on human feces will HELP, but I wouldn't say it will "work." It's a band-aid when you really need a cast. Lime is much heavier duty. But soda is better than nothing.

5-gallon buckets are a great substitute if your normal toilet is dis-functional. Whitewater rafters ( river runners) have used this method for years. On most rivers in the western states, carry-out of human solid waste is either mandatory or at least widely practiced voluntarily by boaters. Because there are no toilets at most back-country river camp sites, rafters use 5- gallon buckets and other containers specialized for such use and bring their waste out with them. Leaving this waste behind buried or other wise pollutes the water ways and camp sites for others and those down stream who may use this water. The result where this is practiced is beautiful rivers and camp sites. However, rafters used to do as some of you are suggesting, put it in a bag and bury it. It doesn't take long to find out why this practice doesn't work very well. It only puts the problem out of sight... for a little while. Maybe only until the next day when a dog or raccoon digs it up. Containing the waste in plastic bags also can preserve the waste for years as buried plastic bags can take many years to decompose and you are right, pathogens and diseases can leach through the soils spreading them and getting into water supplies. Plastic bags of poo also tend to end up in dumpsters. Someones problem. Further, how many holes can be dug in that vacant lot in your community before you start digging up someone else' waste. That was the problem that river runner faced years ago. No place left to dig let alone pitch your tent. What was their solution? A company developed a washing machine called a "Scat Machine" to wash out their portable toilets. The cheap and readily available 5 gallon buckets are still widely used but without the undesirable plastic bag inside. The Scat Machines for river runners ( the same could be done for communities in need) are placed at convenient locations that do have water and sewage disposal capabilities. When boaters come off of their river trip they stop by a local Scat Machine, put their container in the machine and in about two minutes the waste inside is properly disposed of and their container is washed clean and ready to use again. These machines, and this disposal method would be something for all state, county, and other local municipalities to look into in being prepared for a time when it is really needed. I understand that these machines and this system, is already on the way into undeveloped communities in Africa. Why not here in the States? I am lucky, there is already a Scat Machine about a mile from where I live.
Happy pooing

To be clear, I definitely do NOT recommend burying your waste (excrement or otherwise) except in an absolute emergency and ONLY if using bags (such as those offered by Chemisan) which will break down in a matter of hours.
I'm totally loving the concept of the Scat Machine. Though I would definitely need one a little closer than a mile to me in order to feel "secure." :-)


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