Emergency Sanitation 101 – Make a DIY Twin-Bucket Emergency Toilet
I can hear you in my head…”Really”, you say, “I need to make an emergency toilet for today’s challenge? Are you guys crazy, I’m never going to need that!”
Except you just might. If you have taken time this month to survey the hazards for your area you will know that disruption of our sewage systems is a very real possibility. I am encouraging you to know the basics of emergency sanitation and have supplies ready so you can create an emergency toilet.
Related read: The Family Emergency Plan
Last week, through a comedy of errors, we were without water for 18 hours and with no help from plumber (like this guy from Brazil). My family was freaked. No turning on the faucet (they tried repeatedly, muscle memory you know) No water from the refrigerator door, no showers and no toilet flushing!
Luckily we had our water storage to save the day, with plenty of drinking and flushing water available. If this had been an “actual emergency” we might not have been able to refill the toilet tanks and had a go in them. The Pacific NW is long overdue for that big earthquake, you know, and experts are saying that our water and sewer pipes will be toast afterward.
Your short term solution could be a single-bucket camping toilet (like this one from Amazon), but those fill up fast. A Google search today had various designs in the price range of $17-$125. You will also need to consider how to dispose of the waste once it is full. Improper disposal of the contents can lead to polluted groundwater and disease.
Another, lesser known, solution, if water is scarce and there’s no longer access to a septic system, is a dry composting toilet. These types of toilets do not need to be flushed, they have an in-built system to get rid of foul odors, they keep pee and poo separated, and the resulting compost need to be discarded every two months or so (if used on a day-today basis by one person). The only drawbacks of dry composting toilets is that some of them need power to run and they can be rather pricey.
In a previous Emergency Sanitation post we suggested that you might want to turn your home toilet into a port-a-potty. The twin-bucket system my family will use in case of an emergency is another alternative – one that makes disposal of your waste easier and more sanitary.
We’re Talking Pee and Poo
The great thing about pee is that it’s clean. It poses almost no health risk. You can store your pee in buckets with lids until it can be sprinkled on land as a fertilizer or added to your compost pile. (Read more about how to build a functioning compost pile – fancy tools required – here.)
You can even use it to condition the bales if you are straw bale gardening. It’s a great source of nitrogen! If you live in an apartment and don’t have access to land you may have to save it until the authorities give instructions about the disposal.
But your poo contains most of the pathogens and needs to be treated or contained until you can dispose of it properly. The great thing about poo is that it doesn’t take up much space, you only create about 4 to 10 ounces per person daily.
“Not mixing the urine and feces is a proven principle of ecological sanitation. In separating pee and poo, the twin-bucket toilet reduces disease risks and odor and makes the contents of each bucket easier to handle”
Unsafe sanitation practices can be deadly. The solution is to create two different buckets, one for pee and one for poo. This twin-bucket emergency toilet system will serve 3 – 4 people for 3 days.
[Tweet “Unsafe sanitation can be deadly. The solution: create two buckets, one for pee and one for poo”]
You will need these supplies to set up your emergency sanitation area:
- 2 – 5 gallon buckets
- 2 lids for the buckets
- 1 Plastic toilet seat
- 3 gallons of carbon material like shredded paper, sawdust or forest litter
- 10 pairs of disposable gloves
- 1 roll of toilet paper (or more)
- 1 bottle of hand sanitizer, or towels and wipes for hand cleaning
- Optional: sanitary napkins or diapers if needed
- and 1 plastic scoop for the carbon material
Using Your Twin-Bucket Emergency Toilet
- Mark each bucket pee / poo or #1 / #2, whatever suits you.
- Place the buckets in a private place with the carbon material and TP near by.
- Add some carbon material to the bottom of the poo bucket. It will make clean-up easier.
- Decide if you need to use the pee or poo bucket.
- Try not to mix pee and poo, although mistakes are understandable! The pee is the part that produces the bad smell when you mix it with poo.
- Make sure each bucket is covered after each use. Put all used toilet paper into the poo bucket.
- After using the poo bucket sprinkle as much carbon material as needed to completely cover the surface of the poo. This eliminates odors and keeps files away.
I really did learn a lot about disposing of pee and poo while researching this post!
The idea for the Twin-Bucket Emergency toilet came from a conference I attended last year. This system is modeled after composting toilets used in Christchurch New Zealand after their 2011 earthquake.
If you are in a severe emergency and the sewer pipes are destroyed, (see Earthquakes and Sewers) you will need a way to dispose of these things safely. Because the main purpose for learning this method is to keep your family safe and healthy and away from pathogens.
How to Safely Dispose of Human Waste
So, your emergency toilet, camping portable toilet, or dry composting toilet is jam-packed. How do you get rid of human waste without creating an ecological disaster or a biohazard? With human urine it is rather simple. Just discard it around a non-fruit-bearing tree or plant. Also, consider diluting it a bit with water to reduce the risk of attracting wildlife to your premises or the risk of nitrogen burn to grass.
Human feces needs to be handled with more care. The best way to safely dispose of your poo is to bury it in a so-called cat hole (6-8 inches deep, 4-6 inches wide). However, make sure that each cat hole is located around 200 yards away from a water source or stream and that you don’t use a cat hole more than once.
Also, each cat hole should be located far away from one another and away from locations where other people might camp or use the ground. Not getting rid of poo correctly is one of the reasons mountain streams and lakes are often contaminated with giardia and other pathogens. Giardia infection is no walk in the park especially in an emergency situation, and the parasite can survive in cold water for up to two months.
A lesser known way of safely getting rid of human waste is turning it into “humanure” (human manure), which you can later use in your yard and garden. You can learn about composting methods for humanure and preparing a “wheelie bin” or other composter in this handout RELIEVE – emergency compost toilet booklet.
Are you brave enough to try it?