FEMA and, it seems, all the state and local agencies I looked into rely on a poop in a bag, throw in some enzymes or bleach and throw it into a pit approach. In a short term emergency, a day or two let’s say, this might work fine. But if the emergency stretched out longer I can see some potential problems. And the cynic in me sees an opportunity for a contractor to sell toilet and enzyme kits to government agencies.
So what’s wrong with pooping in a bag? First off, it’s disgusting, something I know from backpacking. I have a feeling people might avoid latrines set up with “poop bags” and go do their business behind a bush. And I have a feeling that the government experts suggesting this approach have never tried it themselves.
Secondly, those pits full of bags could become a serious biohazard should rats, let’s say, start pulling the bags apart or should the pit get flooded.
As an alternative to the “poop bag” I was impressed with Joseph Jenkin’s humanure approach that he explains in a series of videos he shot in Haiti after the earthquake. You can see those videos here. Essentially what Jenkins did in Haiti was to forage carbon material (“bagasse” or sugar cane waste) and use that as a cover material in the latrines. This eliminates smells and maggots. He also set up a large humanure compost pile in a refugee camp using the same bagasse material as the carbon source. The hot temperatures in the compost pile kill hazardous microorganisms in human poo. As long as you’ve got a carbon source you can keep Jenkins’ sanitation system going indefinitely. With the FEMA approach you’ve got a problem when you run out of those bags and proprietary enzyme mixtures.
One problem with Jenkins’ approach could be finding a carbon source in an urban area, but I think that’s solvable (suggestions invited!). You also need water for the compost pile but it need not be potable.
I’m no sanitation expert and am interested in opinions on this topic, particularly those who have worked in emergency situations or in impoverished communities. What I like about Jenkins’ approach is that it relies more on knowledge (how to compost, set up a latrine) than equipment. The job then is to spread that knowledge. Learning how to compost should be a skill everyone knows how to do.
Jenkins’ Humanure Handbook: for purchase or free pdf download.