Sanitation and the use of Bucket Toilets


Here is a good article on bucket toilets and sanitation written by a friend of mine.


I can’t remember the year but I do remember the storm. We were well into our first day without electricity and because of the ferocity of the weather outside, we had decided to relocate to the cellar. Even though a tree had fallen on the corner of the house, I felt pretty good about the whole situation. Here we were, sitting in our well-stocked safe room, mattresses and blankets dragged from downstairs.  The orange glow of several candles created a sort of primal safe zone as I fired up the propane grill and cooked grilled cheese sandwiches for the family. For us, everything was going to be OK.

Everything, that is, until one of the kids said that she had to go to the bathroom.

I pointed to a bright orange Home Depot bucket and handed her some kitchen trash bags. The look of horror and outrage on her face was indescribable. “I am NOT going to GO in some BUCKET!” she shrieked as only a young teenage girl can do. “Well, do you have any other ideas?” I calmly asked. She turned and ran upstairs into the storm for the more familiar – but now unflushing – ceramic toilet. It was an idea other family members apparently had before her and by the time she arrived, it was far less appealing than it might have been in normal circumstances.

The truth is that we never did have to use the bucket in that particular situation – the power blinked on an hour or so later. But it did cause us to do some far more concentrated thinking about the matter of human waste.

According to some sources, the average person creates one ounce of fecal matter for every 12 pounds of body weight each day. So, if you weigh 200 pounds, your output of “solid” waste is a little under a pound and a half. (I put “solid” in parenthesis because fecal matter is said to be about ¾ water.) In a family of five averaging 200 pounds each, that’s a little over 5 pounds a day or 156 pounds per month.  And it’s got to go somewhere.

In some parts of the world, that’s a really big problem. According to WaterAid, “Approximately 2.6 billion people around the world lack any sanitation whatsoever. All this untreated sewage,” they continue, “adds up to a major public health crisis that kills an estimated 1.4 million children each year. . .  more than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. Despite this massive death toll, sanitation hasn’t gotten the same attention as other world development goals.” And that’s the same thing that happened with us. No one wants to deal with poop. But in a grid down situation, you’ll have to.

There are a wide number of ways to address the problem, ranging from electric composting toilets to outhouses. For us, the composting toilets are way too expensive and we already have a septic system. And the outhouse, even for those of us living in semi- and even fully-rural areas, is often no longer an option. Amish families in Wisconsin, for example, are currently locked in a legal battle with government authorities over their plans to use outhouses there and here in Lancaster County, the Plain folk have given up on them entirely and gone indoors to do their business. In a long term event, outhouses would still be an option but for shorter term situations, they’re just not worth the time and effort.

Back to the Bucket

A five gallon bucket

Everyone probably has some 5 gallon buckets around but for obvious reasons, a toilet bucket needs to be dedicated to that single use. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to use a permanent marker to label it as such so it doesn’t get accidentally mixed in with food or water storage.

The rest of the job is pretty simple. Double up a standard kitchen trash bag and put them in the bucket. Pull the edges of the bags up and a little over the edge of the bucket. It’s a good idea to put a bungee cord or some other type of fastener around the outside of the bucket to hold the bag in place. Otherwise, as waste is deposited into the bucket, the bags can slide in and a real mess ensues.

Seating is Limited

It is possible to sit on the edge of a Homer Bucket. Interestingly, the seat on a standard ceramic toilet bowl and the rim of a 5-gallon bucket are the same distance off the floor – 15 inches. It isn’t going to be like a White House Chippendale but the bucket will work.

Some people may find it more comfortable to place a couple of cut 2 x 4s over the opening. Yet another idea is to take the seat from an existing toilet and put it over the bucket. In both cases, it’s going to be VERY unstable. This is not recommended. Some might think that falling from a toilet is comical in low-budget movies but it would not be in reality.

Commercial Set Ups

Toilet Seat by Quake Care

There are seats that are specially made to snap onto a 5 gallon bucket. Frankly, these are a very good idea and well worth the little money they cost.

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When we were searching for ours, a couple stood out. The first requirement was that it had to be cheap. We found two low-cost, no-nonsense models. There’s the $12.95 “Toilet Seat” by Quake Care, Inc. It turned our head because it came with a lid. Although the ratings were consistently good, one purchaser complained that the lid did not swing back far enough and had to be taken off for comfortable use. Note: Shipping varies by zip code if you buy this directly from QuakeKare. It’s cheaper by $2.00 if you get it from Amazon, where shipping is a straight $7.50.

Tote-able Toilet Lid

The other model in the low-cost, seat-only category was the Tote-able Toilet Seat and Lid. It is $11.95 from Emergency Essentials. ($6.00 shipping).  It was much like the “Toilet Seat” but had a rubber seal that could help keep odors down.

Other Issues

There are other issues to consider about bucket toilets. One is that they can get smelly. This can be remedied by stocking a bag or two of deodorant kitty litter and sprinkling a handful of it into the bucket after each use. If you somehow find yourself in a disaster situation without deodorant kitty litter, wood ash, quicklime or sawdust can help.

The second is that bucket toilets need to be manually emptied. Keep an eye on how full it gets. And never, ever, try to empty the waste from a full bucket by attempting to lift out the trash bag. Snap off the seat and pick up the bucket by its handle.

In short term situations you can twist-tie the used bags closed and put them in an area away from the family, curious animals and any sources of water that they might contaminate if the bag is punctured. It might be a good idea to have a separate 5-gallon bucket or buckets with lids for storage of the filled bags.

Thinking it Over

After we got through our storm situation and had time to think over how things went, I realized that the reason why members of the family rejected the use of the bucket toilet was probably two-fold. First, it certainly is unfamiliar and new. That’ll set up a barrier right there.

The other thing that didn’t dawn on me until later was privacy. We had made no accommodation for privacy. Suddenly, people were asked to move off to another – but still visible — area of the cellar, drop their drawers and do something we normally consider very private. And nobody looks good perched on a plastic bucket. So, in preparation for our next time, we packed an inexpensive shower curtain that we can hang around our emergency “bathroom.”

It’s like this: experts often remind us to be sure to store some “comfort food” for our families for its psychological value in time of stress. The privacy curtain would do much the same in the sanitation department. Says Rose George, the author of The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters, “You have to understand that it’s about software — psychology — as well as just the hardware of pipes and toilets.”


There are a lot of options when it comes to emergency or camping toilets. They range from the very expensive and fancy to the humble toilet-seat-that-snaps-on-a-bucket. The important thing is that long-term or short, the disposal of human waste is serious business. Handled improperly, it can bring sickness and disease into your family that will make all of your other preps irrelevant.

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Sanitation During the Auckland Power Outage 

On January 20, 1998, a cable supplying electricity to the city of Auckland, New Zealand failed. Because there were a total of four, this was initially not a serious problem. As stress began building on the remaining cables, however, a domino effect occurred and a month later, all electricity was out in the 20 block Central Business District. The CBD is home to about 6,000 apartment-dwellers and 8,000 businesses employing 70,000 people. The outage ended up lasting five weeks. With power gone, both homes and offices suddenly were without sewage services. Combined with the sudden lack of air conditioning, conditions quickly tumbled into the stone age.

One blogger, writing at the time of the disaster, reported, “People in general are not smart. Rather than try and conserve or make a plan once the water stopped flowing, they would flush their toilets. Without power. . . the tank doesn’t refill. The effect is not only gross but staggering. What human beings that have never lived beyond modern conveniences will do is unimaginable.

“. . . when people were actually confronted with such a situation, they went where ever they could – they filled the toilet, the toilet tank, the tub, the shower, the sink – when the bathrooms became uninhabitable, they went in corners, boxes, bags, closets…most however left by the time they were using the tub. Guess how long that took? That’s right, three days!”

But it’ll never happen where we live, right?

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11 thoughts on “Sanitation and the use of Bucket Toilets”

  1. Terrible conclusions on what to do with the waste once it’s in a bucket or plastic bag! Bags leak, become brittle in the sun and draw rats. Seriously, people need to read ‘The Humanure Handbook’ by Joseph Jenkins. Instead of “waste,” he has come up with a simple system to not only pleasantly collect bathroom materials but to recycle them so disposal is not difficult but healthy, too. In Jenkins’ view, it is not “waste” material but a valuable natural resource. Really. Get the book.

  2. Hmmmm…try this:
    Place an ordinary 13 gallon white plastic garbage bag into your regular toilet – AFTER it has been flushed (turn off the water prior to flushing and the bowl will empty automatically).

    Tape the bag neck to the toilet seat with duct tape.

    After use, pull up the tape, snap shut the plastic belt around the neck of the bag, and place it in your garbage container in the garage.

    Install another plastic bag.

    Problem solved!

  3. For additional insight from another sewage-related disaster, where people could not just pack up and leave, have a look at the following article, posted recently on another website:

    Cruising for Disaster: Are you Prepared?

      1. As the passengers disembarked from an ill-fated ship, one fell to her knees crying and kissed the ground. Another described it as the “cruise from hell.” These people were traumatized! Little did they realize that many of the “outrages” they suffered on that disabled cruise ship would have been considered part of normal, everyday life for their great grandparents.

  4. Hi, Barry. Perhaps you might re-read the article. The article offered no conclusions, terrible or otherwise, about what to do with the waste after collection other than to advise storing it in a way that keeps it away from animals and prevents it from leaking into the local water supply — the two things you mentioned.

    Quoting, “In short term situations you can twist-tie the used bags closed and put them in an area away from the family, curious animals and any sources of water that they might contaminate if the bag is punctured. It might be a good idea to have a separate 5-gallon bucket or buckets with lids for storage of the filled bags.”

    Given the scope of the article, it was not the proper place to address long-term, large-volume or alternate disposal methods such as composting of this “valuable natural resource.”

  5. I do live a bit away from it all and I compost my manure.
    Toilet bucket lined with biodegreable bags (no plastic) and always a handfull of sawdust on IT. When full, desposed in a thermo-composter and left for some two or three years. Looses volume and even in some hot-and-humid weather never smells.
    The liquid-nitrogen-fertilizer I collect seperately in (plastic) watering cans filled up with water and used on my fruit trees.

  6. I checked out the “Tote-Able Toilet Seat” on Amazon and many reviews said that it would not fit “any” 5 gallon bucket. Apparently if the bucket is made in China it’s not quite the right circumference. Does anybody know if the above mentioned bucket from the Home Depot is a correct fit?

  7. Look a the natures head and make your own separating toilet with a gallon bottle in a bag with a funnel in the front of the bucket.
    Use sawdust and a stick cat style cover and there is no smell none at all. Dig a post hole and deposit fecal by laying bag on its side after removal of urine bottle, and dump in post hole few inches of soil. Empty bag then toss bag in and cover with soil. Board on top and brick. When hole full top with rest of dirt and use garden lime not lye to see if animals may disturb it. it will mean it needs more attention and will not hurt any animal. Use urine in a million ways read and learn about it, it has 23 different names, learn now what you can do with it it is gold and I mean gold. Like spinach to a child yuck get over it. it is your doctor now in a emergency.
    It is poison if mixed and smells and attracts fly’s, fly’s are disease.

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