Portland Takes Lead in Sound Advice for Emergency Sanitation

Lately, we’ve been checking out what other West Coast cities at risk of earthquake-induced water and sewer system failure and non-functioning toilets are recommending to residents. Some cities propose that residents bag, bleach, throw away, or bury human waste in the event of an emergency.  Such proposals could have dangerous consequences.  Portland, however, has proposed safer, ecological alternatives. Seattle, Washington:  The Public Health Department of Seattle and King County acknowledges that in extreme emergencies sewer systems may not function and offers a page on “How to create an emergency toilet”. The advice to locate “latrines or toilets” away from areas where you are cooking or eating is sound. However, specifying a location 100 feet downhill from “any drinking water source (well or spring), home, apartment, or campsite” is hardly feasible in densely populated vertical neighborhoods. Moreover, “a latrine”, defined as a “hole that is dug in the ground to collect human waste,” is “not appropriate in urban locations.” So what are the millions who reside in Seattle’s dense urban fabric to do? The Public Health Department recommends using “two heavy-duty plastic garbage bags” to “convert a flush toilet or make an emergency toilet from a pail”. People are to add kitty litter, ashes or sawdust and tie off the bags each day, until “a safe disposal option” appears. This could be removed to “a properly functioning public sewer, or septic system” or residents “may bury the waste on their own property.” A declared emergency may allow bags to “be included with the regular garbage.” Such recommendations scare us. Garbage bags of urine and feces threaten an outbreak of disease if they are mixed with ordinary household waste. The liquefaction that destroys sewers also may make streets impassable to garbage trucks. Update:  On November 19, World Toilet Day, we contacted Seattle Council Members and King County Commissioners and communicated with senior officials who assured us that the changes are being made. Bravo, Seattle! Vancouver, British Columbia: The City of Vancouver offers information that implies that households can safely sanitize pee and poo with a disinfectant and then bury it. This seems ‘iffy’ for a city with an EcoDensity Charter and more apartments and condos than ground oriented housing units. Here are the instructions:  To build a makeshift toilet: If sewage lines are broken but the toilet bowl is usable, place a garbage bag inside the bowl. If the toilet is completely backed up, make your own. Line a medium sized bucket with a garbage bag and make a toilet seat out of two boards placed parallel to each other across the bucket. An old toilet seat will also work. To sanitize waste: After each use, pour a disinfectant such as bleach into the container. This will help avoid infection and stop the spread of disease. Cover the container tightly when not in use. To dispose of waste: Bury garbage and human waste to avoid the spread of disease by rats and insects. Dig a pit 2 to 3 feet deep and at least 50 feet downhill or away from any well, spring, or water supply. UPDATE:  How good it is to discover that Vancouver has modified the above instructions and added a two bucket option!   If your toilet is completely backed up:  Use two medium sized watertight buckets with tight fitting lids, one for urine and the other for solid waste
Vancouver also offers a special section on Emergency Kits for Condo Dwellers; 72-hours kits include canned gourmet food, organic energy bars, condoms, and playing cards but there is no mention of  sanitation. Likewise, Environment Canada’s otherwise straightforward Earthquake and Tsunami Smart Survival Guide is silent on toilets. Prepare to survive a major Earthquake is a publication from national government with tips for avoiding sewage back ups and safeguarding the fresh water supply in the flush toilet tank.  Yet outside of listing “portable toilet” among supplies, there’s no advice on containing, separating or treating urine and feces produced in the aftermath of a quake.
San Francisco, California: Are you prepared? is the clever, feature-laden the emergency planning website of the City and County of San Francisco. It acknowledges the likelihood of a sewer catastrophe with the jumble of recommendations, including the single bowl or bucket toilet. If sewer lines are broken, line bowl with double-bagged garbage bags to collect waste. Before discarding, add a small amount of bleach; then seal the bag and place in a tightly covered container, away from people.   If the toilet is unusable, use a sturdy bucket with a tight fitting lid, and line it with a double-bagged plastic garbage bag. Like their counterparts in Seattle and Vancouver, San Francisco emergency officials suggest that after an earthquake that destroys sewer infrastructure there will be options for safe “discarding” of toilet contents. Does this make sense? Portland, Oregon: Portland, in contrast, offers appropriate guidelines for post-earthquake sanitation and simple instructions that allow households to prepare. Moreover, this approach helps to foster household and neighborhood resilience over the months or years that may be required for the restoration of sewer service. Three practical principles of ecological sanitation apply: 1. Waterless containerization.  2. Urine separation.  3. Long term composting.   The Portland Bureau of Emergency Management has adopted the twin bucket emergency toilet proposed by PHLUSH. The simple, elegant system that couples a Pee Bucket with a Poo Bucket was developed by the New Zealand Permaculture Guild to serve Christchurch residents following the 2011 earthquakes that have devastated their sewage system. A downloadable leaflet The Twin Bucket Emergency Toilet shows households exactly how to make and use the toilet in the first weeks following a disaster. The technical criteria on which the system is based and instructions for longer term composting and disease control appear in The Sewer Catastrophe Companion, a painstakingly researched, 24-page handbook which is available for $10 from MDML.


  1. phlush on October 19, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    How good it is to see that the City of Vancouver has changed its instructions.
    1. Use two medium sized watertight buckets with tight fitting lids, one for urine and the other for solid waste 2. Line the solid waste bin with two heavy duty plastic bags 3.Pour a small amount of hydrated lime or regular household disinfectant into the waste container each time it is used, which will reduce the odor and bacteria

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