Emergency Toilet Sanitation

The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure, Third EditionI was asked by our local neighborhood council to talk about emergency turlets for their public safety committee. Doing some preliminary research about what our government suggests concerns me.

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.

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  1. Timely post for me as our septic was out of commission for a few weeks & still undergoing repairs before any solids can be go through. We are fortunate to have a neighbors toilet close by & available & buckets for p. The whole experience has got me thinking & talking with the family more about human waste disposal.

  2. I agree that pooping in a bag is disgusting. Even worse is when the flimsy folding toilet “seat” collapses and your butt ends up covered in sandy poop … seconds before the park you’re camping in has to shut off the water for repairs. Yeah, fun times.

    I think Jenkin’s solution is perfect for emergencies, as well as for the rest of the time, too.

    Carbon sources in urban environment could include landscaping debris, especially if the city has a centralized yard waste or composting facility where materials could be picked up for this use after the landscapers drop them off. Tree limbs could be run through a shredder and lawn clippings nad raked leaves used as is.

    Cabinet makers and other woodworkers produce sawdust in copious quantities, which could be used as cover material. In a pinch, pine kitty litter would work, too.

  3. I love this idea! We have buckets set up for emergency situations just in case. My only question is what to use in place of sawdust or cane bagasse in an urban situation? Grass? Straw if you’ve got it?

    I do agree that pooping in a bag just won’t cut it long term. Thanks for posting the link to the videos!

  4. We’ve set aside a five gallon bucket and toilet seat for an emergency toilet, and I have most of four bales of straw in my garage. The straw was purchased for carbon for the compost pile, but currently the bedding from the brooder is doing that duty.

    I think for most folks, a bale of pine bedding makes the most sense because it’s compacted, fairly inexpensive, and doesn’t take up that much room by itself, so it stores relatively well and out of the way.

    What no one is talking about, though, is what do you do for toilet paper when you can’t just run to the store for more…. ah, for a Sears Roebuck catalog, just like the good old days…..

  5. Shredded paper, peat moss, grass clipping are some of the things the author suggests. The smaller the bits the better. Pine needles (look under any pine tree) or last years raked leaves will work (green fresh leaves not so much). There is actually lots of stuff out there. Sawdust happens to be what the author could get easily…. think least work. Best to start before any emergency even if only for urine (less legal problems) as this will have you already stocking carbon material and getting used to the system. As a side benefit, it will save water too.

    Straw…. slightly decomposed would be better than straight from the bale.

  6. I would vote for a compost toilet system that separates the liquid from dry wastes. The poop goes into a ventilated chamber where it’s covered generously with carbon material (sawdust, dry dirt, ash are possibilities) and left to compost on its own for a year or thereabouts. There’s no need to keep a hot compost pile going, as the decomp happens on its own as the poop dehydrates. (The dehydration also means it loses volume rapidly, making space for more poop.) Since the system depends on NOT adding water, no water source needed for that aspect of the system. Meanwhile, the pee is siphoned off and can be filtered immediately into a grey water system or transported in containers somewhere. Not mixing pee and poop reduces the smell issue tremendously, as it’s largely the combination of ammonia with the solid waste odor that becomes especially putrid. There is almost no interaction with the poop (other than to occasionally distribute it in the chamber so that it uses the space completely) – this reduces the ick factor and the chance of contamination or disease if the compost pile isn’t well maintained. The separating potty can be made with a 5-gallon bucket and a plastic soda bottle. It’s true you have to build the chamber(s), but that could be done in advance of an emergency (best plan) or even after one with a little ingenuity. Seems to me that extra effort at the onset would lead to a much less unpleasant duration. It’s one thing for a family to poop in a bucket and control their compost, quite another for hundreds or even thousands of stressed and miserable people to do so.

    My husband and I are building our house and have chosen this type of toilet – no more flushing precious resources down the drain! 🙂

  7. Thanks for getting us thinking about this issue. So far many of us have only gone so far as the ‘bucket with a liner’ approach, if that.

    Humanure? Still seems to dangerous to me – unless you’re a vegetarian. Carnivor or omnivore poo…I’m not ready to garden with it.
    A separate area with a ‘compost’ heap just for breakdown – it has merit.

    I’m ready to hear more……

  8. Out of toiet paper? Use cloth wipes for pee and a water rinse (bottle) and cloth wipes for poop. And don’t wait for an emergency; do it now and save a ton of money on TP!

  9. Maybe no one wants to think about this. But, I cannot separate my poop from my pee. Yes, I do know “shit from shinola.”

    When the tornado hit, I knew immediately I did not have electricity. When exbf and I drove off to see what had happened, I was numb,stunned beyond words. My next thought was to wonder if the water would be okay. THEN, I wondered if the pump at the water station would work or if the water system was damaged. I knew I had a gallon of water and canned food with liquid.

    NEXT, I decided I would make a compost toilet with a five gallon bucket and the seat from my commode. Holding onto the sturdy clawfoot tub would make it possible to use this. (Clawfoot tub has a lip underneath where it curves, making it possible for me to use the tub like a bar, getting from the tub without help. Possible torn rotator cuff here)

    I have lots of five gallon buckets in which to gather leaves and pinestraw. I pile up my leaves in a corner of the yard for compost and for chicken yard. Another area of my yard has pinestraw (dead pine needles NOT mulch) that I leave for the hens to scratch through. Undoubtedly, I have enough carbon to last until leaves fall again next year. Hens would be banned from pinestraw in the yard.

    As for toilet paper, I use washcloths anyway. But, I broke out the tp since I could not use the washer. I have lots of sewing scraps or yardage that would make disposable/compostable tp.

    I never had to use a bucket for a toilet, but I had read the Humanure Handbook and knew the principles behind it.

    Today, I was given 12 gallons of water, so that problem is solved for any two weeks of the next crisis. (have some bottled, too)

    All the refuse could be dumped in my compost pile after I get all the compost out. Of course, I would have to wait two years to use the composted poo, if I ever did.

  10. You don’t have to separate the poop and the pee – the toilet does it for you. All you have to do is sit with your body leaning a bit forward, as if you were squatting. It’s very easy – just an issue of creating new habit like any other. But the benefits of not turning precious water and soil nutrients into poison far outweigh the learning curve.

    As for the safety issue, it’s interesting how people in the first world are so well trained to assume that if it’s the norm in the first world, it must be the safest and most sanitary solution. In fact, sewage is poisoning the whole world’s water supply, and the treatment plants, even if they were to return the water to a potable state (which most do not) use massive amounts of electricity. In the US electricity=coal, which in turn = huge environmental degradation. Every time we flush we are contributing to our ecological downfall. So in the first world people have the luxury of not seeing the contamination (yet) – this is another case of just because we can (flush our waste down the toilet and pretend it’s a safe solution), doesn’t mean we should.

  11. Most cities pick up yard waste, just use tree leaves and wood chips from the city dump. Other carbon sources are hay, straw, newspaper, sawdust, cardboard, etc. Most cities could solve emergency waste by using their recycling and yard waste pickup materials.

  12. Zafra, thanks. My friend told me I would have to pee one place and poop another. Easy for him to say! Would it be so horrible if I did it all in one place? What is the worst that could/would happen?

  13. If you have a shredder (for shredding personal papers to prevent ID theft), I would think the resulting confetti strips would be excellent for a humanure system. Over the years, until an emergency, you could build up quite a stockpile. The ultimate security: shredded credit card offers mixed with poop. Mmmmm…yep, I think that would do it!

  14. My apoligies for leaving yet another comment but I wanted to mention my experience with shredded paper in a “pee bucket” (no solids). The paper does not help with odor at all! It can be used as a bottom layer for absorbency, but not really as a cover material.

    For that, I’ve used a mix of peat moss and pine kitty litter, although sawdust works well, too. Because urine does not contain the pathogens that feces does, this can be emptied directly into a compost pile without the requisite two year cycle (for full humanure) to make it safe for food crops.

  15. Don’t count on shredding a newspaper. Don’t even count on a newspaper. The reality of my life seemed symbolized by that first newspaper after the tornado. I was shocked and resigned when I saw the paper–one big huge piece of paper, that’s all. It had the center fold and then top was folded to the bottom. It had the name of the newspaper and about six HUGE pictures of the storm damage here. I had seen with my eyes more horrifying sights and more destruction. Everything had to be printed about 75 miles away and trucked back. It did have the ad page, but a skimpy one–two sheets of paper. All this sort of hit me in the face each time I discovered something else we did not have. For real coverage of our problem or anything in the area or the world, I had to rely on a paper brought in to us, not hometown one. Not only was there no news, there was no paper for reuse.

    I am thinking that if you multiply the plight of our city times hundreds or thousands of cities at once, we might just run out of newspaper for composting toilets.

    Someone said the city would step in with getting the brown or carbon to us. Even the garbage trucks here were used to block off intersections. City services were not what they are normally. If it had not been for people from out of state, we would have been longer getting back what we did in the time we did. Churches and individuals were out cutting trees in their neighborhods or of those who did not have their own person with a chainsaw. Yes, the city did lots. But, don’t count on them to shred or chip limbs and trees. Everything was diverted to getting electricity back on after the city was secured with the National Guard with guns at the ready. Each home was searched for survivors and then bodies if people were missing. No one would care about your poo for awhile. There were many trucks with portapotties.

    I would not want to store shredded paper for several reasons–pests (mice and bugs), fire, musty or decaying odor.

    Sorry that I talk about the tornado so much.

  16. P. Parsimony, I was laughing at you until my husband gently reminded me that I said the same thing when he first mentioned separating pee and poop! I said something like, can you really hold in one while you let out the other with such precision?

    No it’s not horrible to do it the all in one place way – that seems to be the method used by everyone on this blog and others on various homesteading blogs that I read, and they’re not having any problems with it. The system that separates liquid and solid waste is an alternative that I think deserves consideration as well, however, for all the reasons I mention above in my first post: less smell, less interaction with poop, not having to maintain a hot compost pile in order to safely compost human waste being the biggest advantages that I can see. When we were considering waste disposal for our home, we knew we didn’t want an expensive and notoriously contaminating septic tank. That left the compost options, and the separation system was way more appealing to me (after I learned that one didn’t have to do the separating oneself :)). This way I can keep my regular old compost pile (or piles) in the garden and I don’t have to hover around them like a mad scientist with thermometers and such.

    I would add, for people who are doing the humanure thing sans emergency, the separation system can be retrofitted onto many existing homes and would go a long way to shrinking your
    “sewage footprint”, as it were, plus free you almost entirely from the sewer lines, which would be a huge relief in an emergency.

  17. Zafra, that was my question, exactly! For a bit, I thought maybe I did them the wrong way and no one had told me! I think I will just keep on doing it all together. Thanks!

  18. Hi Mr. HG,

    I’m using hardwood sawdust, from a cabinet shop. Another option for urbanites is coffee chaff, available free in bulk from coffee roasters, though I’ve never tried it.

    Jenkins Humanure Handbook is available free, online, in a pdf. For anyone in the “Is it safe?” crowd, he covers the science behind hot composting, which is necessary to kill pathogens in humanure.

    What is the preferred carbon source at the Root Simple compound?

  19. Here is a solution I thought up for separating pee from poop. Get a plastic cup and hold it strategically so the pee lands in it as you do your business. Or, perhaps the solution is for girls to try peeing standing up like guys, perhaps by peeing into a homemade funnel made from a plastic soda bottle, unless you get good at copping a squat.

  20. Anonymous- Or you can just use a toilet with the separator built right in, as I’m advocating. No need to complicate the issue. (Although as I mentioned before, the homemade separator toilets can be made with a bucket and a soda bottle, so the soda bottle part isn’t too far off.)

    I still don’t get why people would want to empty poopy buckets and tend a poopy compost pile when they could just let the poop dehydrate and compost on its own with virtually no interference from them, but I guess some people like a challenge. I’m going the no muss no fuss route myself. The important thing is, however you do it, no more flushing! 🙂

  21. Lots of comments on this one! A few thoughts:

    To Separate or Not to Separate?:

    Folks do this different ways–and it’s all good. It’s sort of a matter of both personal preference as well as end use goals. There are separators like Zafra, who retain both urine and poop in different containers. As she said, you can buy separating systems that make this process easy. No need to fuss with bottles.

    There are separators like Chile, who maintain a pee bucket, which can be composted in a regular compost pile, but still use a normal toilet for poop, thus avoiding the pathogen issues, while still saving lots of water and gaining nitrogen for the garden.

    Then there’s folks who mix. Jenkins, Lord of Humanure, mixes. We mix. We don’t find it problematic or extra difficult.

    I think you have to just dive in, try something, and then fiddle until you find a system that works for you.

    On TP after the zombie apocalypse:

    Well, as some folks have said already, little cloth squares and water rinses are probably the best bet. One thing you can say about our civilization is that we have no shortage of waste fabric and inexpensive fabric, so much so that you could (in an emergency) use each cloth just once. That said, there are people right now who use and reuse toilet cloths quite happily. Google it. The Romans used a sponge on a stick. I’d look to India for water rinsing techniques.

    On paper as cover:

    I think I’d agree w. Chile that shredded paper doesn’t control odor well.

    On a side note, if you’re composting, your cover should be carbon matter. Dirt and ash are okay for cover in emergency toilet buckets, and, it seems, okay for dehydration systems, but not so helpful in the compost pile. In a compost pile you want carbon material, the compost “browns”, like sawdust, pine needles, moss, peat moss, chopped up straw, dried leaves, some types of cat litter, etc., to balance the nitrogen inputs of the pee and poop.

    The finer the material, the better the coverage properties. For this reason we’ve always used sawdust– to answer Bruce’s question. A little goes a long way, and the coverage is excellent.

    Someone recently told us she was at an inn with a composting toilet, and they used lavender buds for cover!!! How’s that for class?

    On danger, diet, etc.:

    To be sure, this is advanced composting. You need to own a compost thermometer and know how to use it. You have to follow the Rules. This is a case in which Erik’s style of highly anal (so to speak!) compost management is entirely appropriate and very necessary.

    Pathogens burn out at the high temps you get when you’ve got a good hot pile, and then the 2 yr. waiting period that follows acts as an extra safety valve. It’s pretty easy to test for pathogens in your finished compost. You’d want to do this before using it near food crops. Alternatively, you can just spread the compost around ornamentals or fruit trees–which is what we’ve done.

    I don’t know if it matters so much what you’re eating (meat vs. veg)–though I’d certainly pay attention to what drugs you are taking, and consider whether those should be in the garden soil. That actually concerns me more than pathogens.

  22. I’d be inclined to use the local non-native invasive species like ailanthus altissima for carbon sources. Two birds, one stone and all that.

  23. Back when I had total privacy in town (block wall), I had an outdoor pee bucket. For cover material, I used the patio sweepings – plant debris from a palo verde and mesquite tree planted in wells in the patio. It was lovely in spring to be using bright yellow flowers and sure helped manage the plant waste!

    I’m looking now at kitchen debris to see what might be dry enough to use as cover instead of going directly into the compost bucket. Today I dried grated ginger which was first used to make a ginger syrup (mix with soda water for “ginger ale”) and then covered with vodka for a month to make ginger liqueur. Should be interesting to see what this does for odor. LOL

    Other possibilities could include dry onion & garlic skins, dead-headed flowers, maybe sweet potato peelings if allowed to dry out first. Any other ideas?

    Oh, outside I also used the fine fibrous roots from plants after they finished up in the garden. I’d knock out all the potting soil and then tear them up into little clumps for cover.

  24. There’s an excellent post/thread at Feral Scholar on Humanure Composting.

    A few ideas from the comments section – using dried coffee grounds as your carbon cover; using red wriggler worms in the compost pile if you don’t want to monitor the temperature; the use of Black Soldier Flies in the compost pile.

    The post itself was an insightful, funny introduction to composting humanure. Check it out.

  25. Just wanted to mention that my boyfriend and I both had dreams involving humanure toilets last night after looking through Making It on the bus. Amazing! Clearly making one is our destiny, even if our dreams either involved a horrible smell or a deep fear of such smell.

  26. I’m an urban humanure composer, according to Joe’s methods. Everything goes into the same bucket, and we cover with coffee chaff – though in the past we have also used coffee grinds and leaves. It’s pretty low maintenance, safe (read the book to make sure you’re doing it right), and, I beleive, the right thing to do.

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