Sunday, October 28, 2012

Disasters: Human and other waste disposal during an emergency

Whenever potential drinking and waste water interruptions occur always consider waste management for your family, immediate neighbors, the elderly, apartment\condo complexes, and functional need individuals in your community.

Communities MUST work together and plan for the proper disposal of human and other solid waste material.  Additional water, sanitation, and other equipment for the proper disposal of these materials must be considered.

For our local water and waste management utilities need\must consider adding these considerations to their press releases, and plans for notifications to the community, and just a 'boiling water' notification.

Remember always be safe, be prepared.

Charles D. Sharp

Charles D. Sharp
Chief Executive
Black Emergency Managers Association   
2027 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. S.E.
Washington, D.C.  20020

Waste Disposal During an Emergency

In industrialized societies most of us take our sewage disposal for granted. We simply flush the toilet and forget about it. But the modern sewage and water treatment facilities that we take for granted today are largely responsible for the increased life spans that we enjoy, and have done more to prevent death and disease than all the doctors, drugs, and hospitals in the world combined!

Throughout history, many millions of people have died from diseases such as cholera and dysentery, acquired from water contaminated by human waste. Even today, according to the World Health Organization, water borne diseases are responsible for the deaths of 4,000 children every day! Water contaminated by fecal matter is the single largest cause of disease in the world, and is killing over 4 million people each year with diarrhea and intestinal parasites.

We also take our garbage collection services for granted, until our garbage collectors go on strike and in a matter of days our streets are filled with waste. Many of the great plagues that have struck humankind have been the result of poor sanitation. The Bubonic Plague, or Black Death, which spread from China through Europe during the Middle Ages, was transmitted to humans by fleas which were carried by rodents. The accumulation of garbage in the streets, and the resulting proliferation of rats, contributed largely to the deaths caused by the Black Death. The Black Death wiped out one third of the population of Europe!

I hope by now you understand why this topic is important enough to give some serious thought. What will you do when your sewage backs up because your local municipality can no longer provide the service? What will you do with your garbage when it begins to pile up in the street?

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the average American disposes of 4.6 pounds of garbage every day!

Composting Toilets

A Composting Toilet, such as the C-Head pictured on the right, is probably the easiest, most efficient and environmentally responsible method for "off-the-grid" disposal of both solid and liquid human waste. See the C-Head web site for details on this amazing invention. Check out the BoonJon System designed for camping and "off-the-grid" living.

Other Methods of Sewage Disposal

What if you don't have a composting toilet? If your home is equipped with a good septic tank you will not have to rely on the municipal system for your sewage disposal. Consider yourself lucky. Try to keep toilet paper use to a minimum to prevent your system from clogging up. If you run out of toilet paper and can't buy more, you will probably be using any kind of paper that you can find. Whether you use a septic tank or a municipal system, don't flush it down the toilet! You will surely clog the system. I recommend that you burn or bury your improvised toilet paper instead. This may be inconvenient, but I assure you it will be better than having your system back up, in which case you will be burying more than your paper!

In 1979, I was a college student on summer break hitchhiking across Europe. I spent some time as a guest on a vegetarian commune located in a old castle in rural Southern France. When I went to the basement to use the bathroom I saw the familiar squat toilets that were common in France, but there was no toilet paper to be found anywhere. There was however a convenient water spigot located next to each toilet. When I asked for the toilet paper I was told that they didn't use it but washed themselves with water instead. They claimed that not only was this much better for the septic system, it was also more hygienic. So for the two weeks that I stayed on the commune I did "as the Romans do." That was not a practice that I continued after leaving the commune, but it did show me that people can get along just fine without toilet paper when they have to (as long as there is plenty of water for washing.) By the way, I don't recommend recycling that water!

Even if your sewer system continues to work after an emergency, if your municipal water is interrupted you will have to flush your toilet by pouring a bucket of water down it. If water is in short supply, don't try to flush the toilet after each use. You will want to flush it after defecation I'm sure, but several people can urinate in the toilet before it has to be flushed. You can recycle your "gray water" by using it to flush your toilet. As we saw earlier, "gray water" is water that has already been used at least once for washing—the water you just bathed with or used to wash your dishes for example. It is called "gray water" because the residual dirt and soap give it a grayish appearance.
What will you do if your sewer or septic system backs up? After cleaning up the mess, you will have to bury your waste. Remember that many deadly diseases are spread by water that has been contaminated by human waste, so make sure that you do not contaminate any water supply. (You will probably have neighbors who will not be as thoughtful, so you will have to be careful about the water you drink, as we discussed in the chapter on water.) Discourage people from defecating near any water source used by people or animals, or in fields where crops are grown.

One way to dispose of your waste is to build an outhouse or latrine. The familiar outhouse building with the crescent moon on the door is for privacy and is therefore optional. The only thing that is really needed is a deep pit in which you can dispose of your waste.

A hundred years ago it was common for people to keep a "slop jar" with a securely fitting lid beside their beds for nighttime use when the weather was too cold to venture outdoors. The next morning someone would empty the slop jars into the outhouse pit. If you prefer you too can "go" in a pot inside your house and then carry the waste to your latrine for disposal.
Slop jar
Slop jars like this one were familiar household objects before the days of indoor toilets.
Camping toilets
A camping toilet like one of these may also be used for waste disposal. The older type made of metal (on the left) and the newer type made of plastic both contain removable buckets for carrying the waste to the latrine.

Construction of a Latrine

Latrines should be situated and constructed so as to minimize the risk of groundwater contamination.

There should be at least 50 feet (15 meters) between your latrine and any water source, such as a well, stream or lake. If you have a well, locate the latrine on lower ground or "downhill" from it if possible. It should also be located where it will not be flooded by storm water, which could contaminate any local water supply. The top of the latrine should be raised or built up at least 6 inches (.15 meters) above ground level to prevent rainwater from entering the pit. It should have a tight-fitting lid so insects and animals can not enter it. Mosquitos will breed in the pit if water accumulates at the bottom. If insects can not be kept out the excreta should be covered with 4 inches (.1 meter) of soil every two or three days.

Your pit should be 5 feet (1.5 meters) deep. Holes for outhouses with a superstructure over them are normally dug about 3.5 feet (1 meter) square. If your latrine is simply a hole in the ground you may not want to make it that wide but you should try to make it deep. Keep it covered with a board that completely covers the pit and is sturdy enough for someone to walk on. By all means do whatever is necessary to insure that people and animals do not fall into the pit.

When the pit fills up, simply dig another one close by and move your latrine or outhouse to the new pit. Use the dirt from the new hole to fill in the old one making a mound on top because it will settle as the waste decomposes. From time to time you will need to add additional dirt as the old pit settles. Be careful to avoid underground utility lines when digging your latrines. (Your local utility companies will show you where they are located on your property. All you have to do is call them and request this free service.)


Remember these three "R"s of garbage management:
1) Reduce
2) Reuse
3) Recycle


The most desirable option for garbage management is to reduce the amount you produce. If you eat everything on your plate you will obviously have less to throw out. But what about the packaging? You can't eat a cardboard box. The problem will be partially solved by choosing foods with less packaging. The more a food is processed the more packaging it seems to require. Fresh and natural foods generally have little if any packaging. So not only is it healthier for you to choose foods with minimal processing, it is healthier for the environment as well. Choose natural, whole foods whenever possible. If anything remains after the fresh food is consumed it can be fed to animals or composted.

It seems like half the trash I throw out is junk mail. Hopefully, during an emergency, when the garbage collection services are temporarily interrupted, the junk mail will be interrupted as well. If not, we could all end up buried in junk mail! If you want to reduce the junk mail that you receive you can contact the Direct Marketing Association's (DMA) Mail Preference Service at their web site at: There is a $1 fee but I have heard that the service is very effective at reducing your junk mail. Just consider the small fee a contribution to help protect the environment. If you are tired of receiving credit card offers in the mail the three national credit bureaus offer a toll-free number that you can call to opt-out of credit offers. Call 1-888-5-OPTOUT (1-888-567-8688) for more information.

In the section on food storage I mentioned that my favorite method for long-term storage is canned food. If you can your own foods there will be no problem with waste disposal, because you will reuse your glass jars. But what about the canned foods that you buy from the store? If your community provides a recycling service you should certainly recycle your cans rather than throw them in the trash. But what will you do during a prolonged emergency when these types of services are interrupted? Unfortunately I have not found a perfect solution to this problem. If you consume store-bought canned foods you are going to produce some garbage. I believe however that the benefits of using canned foods for your emergency stash far outweigh this inconvenience, so canned foods remain my preferred method of food storage.


What is the difference between reusing and recycling? I will answer that question with an example: After you drink a bottle of water, if you throw the empty bottle in the recycle bin you are obviously recycling. But a far better option would be to refill the bottle, perhaps using water from your own water filter. A lot of energy is required to crush and melt old bottles to convert them into new bottles. But very little is required to reuse a plastic or glass bottle. You simply wash it out and reuse it!


Recycling is the least desirable of the three R's but it is far better than simply throwing your trash away—wasting natural resources and contributing to land fill problems. I have already mentioned ways that we can recycle our food waste. Many parts of the foods that we can't eat can be fed to animals to fatten them up, providing us with a good source of protein. The plant wastes that our animals can't consume can be composted, providing rich nutrients that are returned to the soil, reducing our dependence on chemical fertilizers

What to Do with the Rest of Your Garbage?

With no newspapers and junk mail, and with less packaging from processed foods, you will have much less to dispose of, and you should be able to use the three R's mentioned above to take care of most of what remains. But there will no doubt be some small amount of garbage that you will have to get rid of. That is where the "two B's of garbage disposal" come into play: Burn it or Bury it!
Some trash that can not be reused or recycled can be burned, possibly providing energy that can be used for warmth or cooking. The use of covered enclosures like this chimenia are preferable to burning in the open because they reduce the risk of wildfires. Some municipalities will allow outdoor burning only in covered enclosures like this one. Outdoor burning should be avoided when conditions are very dry and/or windy due to the risk of wildfires.

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