Trash & Waste


If normal services are interrupted, trash is a serious urban health danger. If you don't take care of it, the mice and flies will, and you won't like that. The primary rule is: Be careful what you throw away and how you throw it away. "What ya do with what ya got" is a traditional saying that bears remembering. People can respond creatively to disruptions of normal supplies and services. When you begin to think of your trash as less of a disposal problem and more of a useful resource, you are getting to the point.

Reduce Trash

Start by throwing away less stuff. Bottles and cans have other uses once they have been emptied; food and shredded paper can be composted. If stores are closed, you'll find uses for cans. Sort what you throw away; a big problem with recycling is the practice of mixing different kinds of trash. Don't mix wet and dry trash, you will create a stinky mess that will be attractive to flies and mice. Keep toxic items such as spray paint cans separate. Don't put disposable diapers in with other trash. Separate it, bag it, and cover it with a tarp so it can't get wet.


Compost the wet trash. Mix shredded dry materials (such as newspapers, leaves or sawdust), wet and green trash (lawn clippings, kitchen/garden scraps) with dirt. No meats or fats should be added to this mixture. Keep this compost heap covered with dry material, and slightly damp. If it starts to stink, you probably need to add more dry material or dirt. As the compost rots, it generates heat. You can capture some of this heat as hot water by running a garden hose through the compost heap.

Avoid Disposable Diapers

Do not put disposable diapers into the compost heap or bury them in the ground. If trash collection is disrupted switch to cloth diapers. Disposable diapers can not be burned. If disposable diapers are buried they will not decompose. If disposable diapers are all you have place them in garbage bags and into a container that mice and flies can not get into. Feminine pads should be buried or burned.

Burning Trash

If disruptions of trash collection are prolonged, you may be tempted to organize the burning of trash, but this should be done in conjunction with public authorities such as fire or police departments. Be pro-active in organizing your neighborhood to take care of trash. Don't wait for the flies and mice to start working on it.

Disposal of Human Wastes

The breakdown of a city's sewage system is an immediate threat of the spread of disease. Improper disposal of human wastes causes epidemic diseases that kill people. Immediate intervention is required. Do not use public spaces such as parks or lawns for human waste disposal on the surface of the ground. Do not bury human waste in snow.

If the sewer works, but the water does not, use water that has been used for washing to flush the toilets. Your health and wellness in disaster situations depends a lot on your community's ability to properly meet the challenges of public health such as hygiene, trash, and sewage disposal.

Sewage Disposal

If the sewer works but there is no water, use water that has been used for washing to flush toilets. Chemical toilets (porta-potties, Recreational Vehicle toilets) may provide a temporary solution. Emptying is uncertain, depending on service availability.

Create Emergency Indoor Toilets

  • Put a toilet seat on a rigid plastic bucket
  • Put sawdust, dry leaves and dirt in the bottom of bucket
  • After each use, add more of this material so waste is covered
  • If toilet paper is not available, use newspaper or phone book paper
  • When full, dispose of waste in one of two ways:
    • Dig a hole in the ground about six feet deep and 2 or 3 feet across. Empty into the hole, and cover completely with dirt. Cover the hole with a board weighted down with bricks or rocks. When this has been filled to within 2 feet of the surface, fill it the rest of the way with dirt. Disposal holes must be a least 8 yards away from a source of water such as a well, pond, or stream.
    • Empty into a compost heap, and cover completely with natural materials. (This compost should be aged for at least one year before using, and it must be monitored to ensure that it heats up properly so the disease pathogens are killed).
  • After emptying bucket, rinse with the bleach disinfecting solution.

Outdoor Pit Latrines

The primary problem with an outdoor pit latrines are flies/mosquitoes, odors, and the spread of disease, none of which are minor nuisances. Manage these by:
  1. Covering the pit with a slab of concrete or plywood; this slab must fit tightly to the pit walls so that there are no gaps or holes between the latrine cover and the edges of the pit.
  2. Installing a capped and screened vent pipe that rises at least 18 inches above the roof of the latrine.
  3. Using a tight fitting seat cover inside the latrine. Paint the vent pipe black and place on the sunny side of the latrine. This heats the air inside the pipe, causing it to rise and draw air out of the pit, minimizing odor.
If toilet paper is not available, many common papers can substitute, such as newspaper or phone book paper. Some cultures use water for cleansing.