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Emergency Toilets

Photo Photo by Carol McCreary at SuSanA Secretariat.

1. When you think about it, a sanitary toilet will be your first most important commodity. You may be able to survive without water for a few days and go without food for even longer. You will need, however, a sanitary toilet within just a few hours. Sewage systems stand a good chance of being disrupted by a major earthquake. You might still be able to flush toilets by pouring water into the tank, but, you are strongly urged not to do so. You won’t immediately know where the waste actually ends up. So, until you hear official announcements that your sewer system is functional, please do not flush toilets after a major earthquake.

2. Unfortunately, aside from toilet paper, many earthquake preparation lists make no mention of an emergency toilet. There is a reason for this. Setting up an emergency toilet involves more components than any other emergency item and you must know how these properly work together. It's not rocket science, but, it's also not something that the vast majority of us are familiar with. Consequently, the lack of proper sanitation after disaster events threatens to lead to sanitation hell, followed by the spread of disease and death.

3. If our local authorities have no specific plan for responding to a damaged sewer system, they will probably desperately scramble, along with scores of other municipalities, to find as many portable toilets as possible to place around our community. Even if our neighborhoods do receive units, we have no guarantee that they'll be regularly and properly maintained, if at all. We'll also have to count on the cleanliness and consideration of everyone making use of these units.

4. In 2012, New Zealand, following a disastrous earthquake their city ChristChurch, came up with the solution of the Twin-Bucket Emergency Toilet. It was a simple, inexpensive, easy-to-maintain, sanitary toilet system that residents could manage in the privacy of their own homes. It was so successful, the system is now widely-endorsed by disaster management agencies worldwide.

Materials Needed for a Twin-Bucket Emergency Toilet

  • Two 5-gallon buckets with lids. Find these at home improvement, hardware or paint stores.
  • Carbon material. This can be wood shavings, sawdust, shredded paper, bark chips or peat moss, or, in a pinch, dirt. Find some at garden centers or animal bedding material at pet supply stores. Even bag shredded paper from your paper shredder. Although kitty litter is sometimes mentioned for emergency toilets, it has generally proved less satisfactory than materials noted here.
  • Several boxes of disposable, 13-gallon, heavy duty, black plastic garbage/contractor bags. Get the thickest bags you can find, ideally at least 1 mil. You may have to order these online, because they are not easily found at local stores.
  • Toilet seat for a 5-gallon bucket (available online) or simply a pool noodle split down the middle. You could also improvise with an actual toilet seat and lid, modified to fit securely over a bucket. This will, however, require a little bit of shop skill (instructions and YouTube videos online).
  • Toilet paper.
  • Screen, curtains or tarps for privacy, if toilets are not set up in existing bathrooms.
  • Several boxes of latex or nitrile gloves to wear when bagging human waste.
  • Sanitizing wipes.

How to set up a Twin-Bucket Emergency Toilet

1. Set up buckets in a space that provides privacy. This could be an existing bathroom, if space allows, or another room or an outdoors location with privacy screening.

2. Mark or label the buckets “PEE” and “POO.” It is important that these buckets are clearly marked or labeled.

3. You do not need a disposable liner bag in the Pee Toilet. The Poo Toilet, however, should be lined with one of the black disposable plastic bags.

4. Attach the toilet seat to either of the buckets. These will be swapped between buckets as needed.

5. Have enough toilet paper on hand.

6. Have the carbon material within reach.

7. Have disposable gloves and your supply of disposable plastic bags on hand. Store these supply items inside the buckets until you need to use them.

How to use a Twin-Bucket Emergency Toilet

1. Try not to pee into the Poo Toilet (or vice versa). This is important because mixed poo and pee creates much of the foul odor commonly associated with toilets. Poo in the Pee Toilet would prove to be a nasty clean-up project. If pee, however, does end up in the Poo Toilet, don’t fret. The carbon material is meant to help absorb liquids.

2. Toilet paper should only be discarded in the Poo Toilet.

3. When finished using the Pee Toilet, place its lid back onto the bucket, without forcing it tightly onto the bucket. It does not need to be airtight.

4. When finished using the Poo Toilet, cover over poo and discarded toilet paper with a handful of carbon material, so that it completely covers the waste. You should be able to use the same disposal plastic bag several times, extending your supply. If you are using a toilet seat with a lid, just close the lid. If you have an open seat without a lid (such as a pool noodle), remove the seating and place a bucket lid on the bucket. Don’t force the lid tightly onto the bucket so as to be airtight. You want allow some air to help dry out the waste.

How to dispose of waste from a Twin-Bucket Emergency Toilet

1. When the Pee Toilet is about one-quarter full (or before it becomes too heavy to safely carry), add some gray water (see Water, paragraph 11 above) to dilute the urine. Then take the bucket outside and pour the contents on your lawn or underneath plants (not sidewalks or the street). Try to change locations each time to minimize the risk of chemicals in the urine damaging the soil. Urine from a healthy person is not toxic, being mostly water and nitrogen. In fact, urine can actually be beneficial to plants and is used in some fertilizers.

2. Fill the Poo Toilet to no more than half-full. When ready to dispose, use the disposable gloves, double-bag the waste, tightly seal, and store separately away from other garbage. Keep this as far away from food and water as possible. A dedicated and separate garbage can or roll cart is best for storing human waste and discarded toilet tissue. Secure the waste so that it is not accessible by pets, flies or rodents.

3. Reline the Poo Toilet with fresh disposable plastic bags.

4. We may have to store human waste until our public sanitary system can be restored. Unless the authorities direct otherwise, do not mix discarded human waste with other household garbage. Human waste must be specially treated and not discarded in landfills.

Download brochure: The Twin-Bucket Emergency Toilet

Emergency, Toilet, Earthquake

Every toilet set-up absolutely must include a hand-washing station. See Hand-Washing Stations.

Final Tips

1. A single Twin-Bucket Emergency Toilet set-up is the equivalent of a single bathroom. All members of your household would have to share these toilets. Because individual household members would be not be able to discreetly flush away waste after each use with this toilet system, consider whether they might appreciate having more than one toilet set-up in your household.

2. Although 5-gallon buckets for an emergency toilet will do the job, consider spending a bit more to upgrade to actual portable camping toilets. You'll find that some of these not only allow you to sit higher and more stable than you would on a bucket, but would also offer a more comfortable seat and toilet lid. These are not expensive and may be purchased online.

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