Sanitation Preparedness

Being prepared for a disaster starts at the household level. There are several actions you can take to prepare your household, so that when disaster strikes, you will have sanitation covered.

Imagine a "mega-quake" scenario in your region. Try a best case scenario: the quake hits early on a Sunday morning when members of your household are together and accounted for. Your house is damaged but several rooms are usable; you can shelter in place. You have stockpiled food and drinking water for the first month. More worrying is the fact that you don’t have running water and your toilet won’t flush.  Your water and sewer pipes must have broken somewhere along the line.   

Professional emergency responders may come to your rescue, but it will probably take a while. They’ve got damaged bridges, unsafe roads, downed electrical and phone lines, and, most importantly, injured people to worry about.  

Without potable water, people can die within a week. Supplying it will keep teams busy, and if you're prepared, you will have some extra water on hand.  But managing your household pee and poop?  You can do it yourself if you’re prepared! All it takes is a couple of buckets and some mulch.

Use the Twin Bucket Emergency Toilet!

This flush-less system requires minimal materials and maintenance. One bucket is used for pee (sterile), and the other is for poo -- be sure you don't mix the two! Toilet paper can be tossed in the poo bucket. After going #2, cover the entire surface of the poo with carbon material (mulch, shredded paper, coffee grounds, sawdust, etc.) and close the lid. No mixing necessary!

Our Twin Emergency Bucket Toilet guide was inspired by the compost toilet group of New Zealand Permaculture Emergency Response Group, which used the Twin Bucket system to serve residents of Christchurch after the February 2011 earthquake. With their permission, we took their simple innovative approach and urged Portlanders to prepare. The City of Portland adopted the Twin Bucket Emergency Toilet in fall of 2011.

View our Twin Bucket Emergency Toilet leaflet now.



Why do we need a toilet in our emergency supplies?  Quakes and shakes mean pipe-breaks.  You shouldn’t flush your toilet after an earthquake.  All the pipes in your septic system or your municipal sewers need to be checked out first.  

What’s wrong with porta-potties? Community porta-potties and household chemical toilets may work in minor emergencies where transport and treatment infrastructure remain intact.  But in a severe seismic event, disposal and treatment options disappear. In Christchurch NZ the use of chemical toilets made the situation worse.

Can’t we just put a plastic garbage bag in our home toilets but not add water? Think about it.  What might happen if black bags of fecal pathogens get mixed in black bags of ordinary solid waste?  And where would you send the bags and how?  Trucks with no fuel on broken roads?  

Why two buckets?  Imagine you have a single bucket toilet. How fast will it fill up?  Pretty fast right?  If you have one for pee and one for poo which will fill up faster?  The     pee bucket, right?  As for the poop bucket it won’t fill so fast and you can safely contain the pathogens.

What do you mean “contain the pathogens”?  Keep the poo in a container.  Cover poo lightly with carbon material to dry it out. Don’t put on a tight lid because it needs air. You can cover the bucket with a screen or piece of cloth to keep flies out.  

Doesn’t the poo bucket smell?  Very little. The bad odors result from mixing poo with pee.   

What about the pee bucket?  Pee doesn’t usually contain pathogens, unless someone in your family is sick.  For the pee bucket you need a lid that fits well.  When the bucket gets full, cover it and set aside.  Or you can dump it in any other container with a lid. Pee is simply stored and its pH rises naturally to destroy any remaining bugs.  

How much does a person pee everyday anyway?   Between one and two quarts.  That’s about 6 cubic feet a year.  Amount of urine depends on mostly on body weight and intake of food and drink.

What about poo?  Less than two pounds a week.  As poo dehydrates volume decreases. A year’s worth is about one and a half cubic feet, an amount you could carry in a backpack.  

Where did the idea for the twin buckets come from?  From New Zealand after their earthquake when people realized that pit latrines and chemical potties spoiled the environment.  Not mixing urine and feces, however, is a proven principle of ecological sanitation.  UDDTs, or urine-diverting dry toilets are increasingly  being used throughout the world. You can find them in some green buildings: the new headquarters of the Bullitt Foundation in Seattle is an example.

Are the twin buckets a humanure system? No. Humanure usually uses single bucket to collect a pee+poo mix.  There is more volume and treatment requires a labor intensive thermophilic composting treatment.

Can you say more about the covering material?   Keep the carbon covering material near the poo bucket in a separate container with a scoop. Cover each deposit lightly to deter flies and help feces dry out.  You can use sawdust or shavings, finely shredded papers, coffee husks, or the coir fiber from the convenient bricks that are sold as gardening supplies.  But remember, if you intend to empty buckets into your septic tank, just let the poo dry out WITHOUT adding carbon material.

Where’s the best place to get buckets with lids?  Rather than buy new ones, first try to find used buckets. The FDA prohibits bakeries and restaurants from reusing buckets commercially.  Restaurants and supermarkets give away 3.5 gallon buckets with tight fitting lids.  Hardware stores have new buckets with lids.  An excellent online source is US Plastics, where buckets and lids come in a variety of colors.  How about a red and green Twin Bucket Hygiene Kit for under the Christmas tree?

I can’t find a plastic snap-on toilet seat. What do I do?   Snap on lids are usually but not always available online for about $10-15.  Comfortable alternatives seats can be made using inexpensive pipe insulation or a split pool noodle. Consider buying a single bucket camping toilet that comes with detachable lid and adding an extra bucket, or adapting your regular toilet seat to fit your bucket.

Thanks to the help of our partners, comprehensive guides to managing sanitation in an emergency are now available.

The 2012 A Sewer Catastrophe Companion: Dry Toilets for Wet Disasters, is a comprehensive guide providing beautiful imagery and clear detail on what to do with your pee and poo in an emergency, including the use of a Twin Bucket system and how collected waste can be safely used as compost.

Our past exhibits on household sanitation and workshops on neighborhood level emergency sanitation have also proven popular and effective.

We continue to partner with government agencies and organizations in the Pacific Northwest to participate in events and to develop and pre-test high quality awareness materials, how-to manuals and videos for both the general public and disaster response specialists.

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