Waste disposal can be a matter of life and death. Many historians feel that the thing that has saved the most lives and contributed the most to longer life expectancy in the 20th century isn’t better nutrition, wonder drugs, or better medical know-how. Rather, the taken for granted invention which helped us into our quality way life was the lowly sewer line and proper methods of dealing with human excrement.
Human waste and garbage is a witch’s brew of deadly bacteria, viruses, and poisonous chemicals. Most people carry, inside their gastrointestinal tracts, many deadly “bugs” which are, fortunately, kept in check by the body’s defenses.
Once these bacteria are free of the human body’s defenses, however, they become free to multiply in human waste. If these wastes are somehow reintroduced into water supplies, the concentrations of bacteria and viruses can cause sickness and death.
Additionally, human excrement is an excellent medium in which bacteria and viruses can multiply. It also attracts flies, cockroaches, rats, and other vermin which can carry dysentery, typhoid, paratyphoid, cholera, and plague.
Consequently, improper waste disposal will almost guarantee an outbreak of a deadly disease. Unfortunately most vermin have high resistance to radiation which would make them extra dangerous in a nuclear war situation. Additionally, paper wastes and trash—even if clean enough not to be a health consideration from the standpoint of the bacteria or viruses on them—can furnish a home for vermin. Such trash could also attract unwanted human attention in the aftermath of a disaster.
Looters or other undesirables could be alerted to your presence if you’ve created a mound of empty cans and other garbage outside a refuge. In a disaster, being a “litterbug” can be hazardous to your health!
The dangers of waste disposal
Unfortunately, waste disposal systems are one of the first things to go in the aftermath of a war or natural disaster. In fact, many wars and disasters have more “casualties” caused by diseases created by improper waste disposal than by the actual combat or disaster. These deaths are needless, and a few simple precautions and practices would eliminate such waste of life.
Fortunately, dealing with waste disposal is not complicated. If you understand a few basic principles, make a few preparations, and carry out proper procedures, you could keep from creating a life-threatening build-up of dangerous wastes.
If, however, you fail to take care in dealing with waste, you may actually survive a nuclear war or other major disasters only to die from a disease which has been all but eradicated by modern waste disposal methods.
The basic principle is simple: keep waste and the pests it can attract away from food and water supplies. Waste disposal is different than survvial sanitation as you can see in this article.
Now let’s see how to go about waste disposal. Obviously the garbage man probably won’t continue making his rounds. If large groups of civilians survive the initial crisis (which might not be the case in a disaster like nuclear war), survivors could face mounds of trash and garbage which would pile up very quickly.
This material will become dangerous very quickly. In such a situation, there is really only one solution: the trash must be burned as soon as possible and the material which can’t be burned must be buried or stored in abandoned buildings.
This is all far from ideal but would be the only way to head off the health problems which would quickly develop as rodents and insects found homes in the garbage. The fumes and smoke given off through the burning of plastics can be quite dangerous, but the deadly fumes would be less dangerous than the health problems which are created when garbage builds up.
Perhaps more of a problem would be created by the human excrement which would be generated by a disaster which disrupts waste disposal utilities without killing off a large segment of the population.
Most modern cities and many “rural” areas as well have sewer lines which feed into a sewage treatment plant. During a war or other major disaster, the pumps moving effluent (the polite word for liquid human wastes) and sludge (the heavier solid wastes) will be inoperable.
That means that those in high areas of town may still be able to use the sewer system for a short time—until things get clogged up. Those in low-lying areas—or the bottom floors of high rises—may see their sewers back up into living areas.
If you are the “low man on the totem pole,” give some thought as to how to disconnect your sewer line from the city’s system. Fortunately, water in a city’s supply system will probably also vanish during a crisis which causes a failure of the sewage system. This will keep large amounts of water from flooding into the non-functioning sewers.
On the other hand, if you were in an area where there were large casualties and you were forced to hold up in a fallout shelter or found yourself in a similar situation, and if you were in a high area of town, you might be able to use a sewer to get rid of your liquid wastes until it was safe to venture into the open and create a suitable system as outlined below.
But this would be far from ideal since there is no way of knowing how long the sewer could be used before it backed up. And the waste will go untreated wherever it ends up. Eventually, there’ll be one whale of a waste problem which will lead to disease and contamination in your area.
There are other better alternatives
One is to “camp out” in your shelter and store waste as it builds up. This is little better than using a non-operable sewer system, but you do have a lot more control over what’s going on so that you don’t get any ugly surprises. This is also the level of waste disposal that most fallout shelters demand due to lack of funds available to the citizen creating his own private shelter.
Perhaps the most important consideration in such a primitive system is how long it will be needed. As time goes on, this system becomes more dangerous since containers for holding waste become scarce as well as deteriorating to the point of leaking.
Since a protracted nuclear war could mean staying in a shelter for months in areas of high fallout, some thought to other systems of disposal would be in order for those living downwind from major targets.
Waste Disposal Strategies
There are a number of strategies which can be used to make such a primitive shelter disposal system workable and bearable, however, provided the occupants are able to live with the crude accommodations.
In addition to human excrement, people generate a lot of wastewater in cleaning up and food preparation. In a shelter, getting rid of this water, trash, and garbage can become a crisis.
The best waste disposal strategy is to cut way down on the water that is being used in the shelter. One way to do this is to use paper plates, paper cups, etc. and have occupants “lick” their utensils clean and then use them again for the next meal.
Washing hands, cleaning spots off clothes, “spit baths,” etc., can be carried out with “diaper wipes” used to clean babies and available in most grocery stores. These disposable cleaning cloths do an excellent job of cleaning and can then be thrown away and treated like dry paper after they’ve been used.
Garbage can be stored in empty food containers. Even regular cans can be used for storing garbage. By saving the lid, the container can be filled with garbage, the lid replaced, and the can sealed shut with masking tape or duct tape.
Take care when storing these containers that the seals on them aren’t disturbed since the tape will tend to come loose over time.
Having the “ripe” garbage get loose would be far from ideal!
Plastic bottles can also be used for storing garbage. Don’t use glass containers to store garbage since the glass is easily broken—with disastrous results if it contains “ripe” garbage.
Non-liquid wastes like paper, dirty rags, paper plates, diaper wipes, etc., can be placed in plastic garbage bags; just be sure rodents or stray pets can’t gain access to them. As soon as possible, these cans of garbage and trash sacks should be buried, unless trash collection is to be resumed—a doubtful proposition following a major disaster.
This material should be buried downhill from your well or other water sources (so that it won’t contaminate them) and be under enough soil so that it won’t be dug up by animals. You should also give some thought toward keeping this trash out of areas which may be used later for gardening or even farming in a post-disaster period.
The other big waste disposal problem in a disaster is human excrement. A “restroom” can be crude and still be usable. But it must work efficiently. A pail, bucket or a portable chemical toilet is simple to create or purchase and—with care—would get you through a major crisis.
Since the “weighty” part of excrement is actually water, if you can divide your excrement waste disposal into liquid and solid wastes, storage becomes greatly simplified., Therefore, it is wise to have separate facilities (i.e.. buckets) for urine and feces.
The pail or bucket for feces should be lined with a garbage bag so that excrement can be easily removed and stored if you don’t have a way to move it into a septic tank or the like.
Don’t let the bag get too full, and remember that most plastic bags aren’t too strong. Excrement bags should be carefully sealed OUT not too tightly. Feces creates methane gas as it is broken down by bacteria. This gas will rupture a plastic bag which is sealed too tightly.
The bags should also be stored where the smell coming from them will not be coming back into your living area. Be aware of the direction of prevailing winds as well as the intake/exhaust arras of your living area.
If possible, a large hole could be dug outside a fallout shelter and the excrement bags stored in the hole until they can be buried following an end to the nuclear war or other crisis. Great care should be taken to keep this hole free of vermin. Use of insecticides and a tough cover over the hole is a must.
Make such a pit deep and use the dirt from it to make a trench around the hole so that rainwater can’t drain off the soil surrounding it and into the pit, causing it to overflow. If you’re using such a waste pit in conjunction to a shelter, one of your first tasks when you can finally lease your shelter should be to bury the waste from the pit so that it won’t become a health hazard or a breeding ground for pests.
Urine and water used in cleaning and food processing are initially relatively low in dangerous bacteria (as compared with feces) and could be stored in empty containers which had been full of emergency water supplies.
These liquids could also be transferred via a hand pump or—more ideally—by gravity action into a cesspool or sewer system. Since this will be the bulk of your waste disposal problem, thought should be given to how to deal with this liquid waste.
If these liquids are to be transferred outside the shelter area, the sooner the transfer is made, the fewer bacteria will have grown in the liquid. Once the liquid waste has been stored for any length of time. it becomes very contaminated.
Buckets or barrel “toilets’ should have a seat made or purchased for them. Generally the simplest route is to go to a hardware store and purchase a toilet seat. (These seats can also be removed from household toilets with a pair of pliers if you’re in an “improvise” situation.)
Chemical toilets for waste disposal
These are better than make-do buckets and pails but, ideally, should be used only for liquid wastes while plastic bags are used for feces. Chemical toilets do require extra space for the chemicals and water that they need, however. So if space or water is at a premium, a pail is a better bet.
To keep smells down in your pail, bucket, or “Porta-Potti,” it’s possible to use the chemicals designed for chemical toilets to treat excrement. Companies selling portable chemical toilets also sell the chemicals for them.
You can also improvise your own chemicals from formaldehyde and methyl alcohol (available at almost any drug store). Rubbing alcohol by itself can also be used.
With the feces pail, powdered lime or chloride of lime may be added to the excrement to keep bacteria growth under control. Wood ash or soil will work for this purpose in a pinch.
In the cramped space of a shelter, besides waste disposal, some thought should also be given to privacy.
A shower curtain or screening of some sort is important. Air fresheners containing alcohol will also help keep both smells and bacteria out of the air. Venting the “toilet bucket” will help keep odors down.
A separate vent pipe (or even a garden hose) leading down to the bucket would be best but placing your “bathroom” near the exhaust vent of the shelter will also work.
This is important, too, with chemical toilets. While the chemicals for them help keep smells down, the units are not odorless despite the ad hype.
If you have a source of water, it would be possible to use a standard flush toilet in a shelter if you went to some extra work and added a septic system—or even a crude cesspool—for the stool to drain into.
This would be a big step up in waste disposal and a morale booster in a crisis.
Standard toilet tanks can be filled by carrying water to them or groups of tanks might be filled “automatically” if water is introduced somewhere into your water line.
Because toilets have an automatic valve in them which turns water on and off, a simple siphoning system can be created in nearly any home with indoor plumbing.
All that is needed is to shut off the supply line coming into the house (assuming a city water system is being used) and then place a large barrel or other containers on a counter or other area which will keep your water supply higher than the toilet tank.
A surgical hose or plastic pipe is then used to connect the water supply of the barrel to a spigot or sink (be sure the valve is open). When water is used at a level lower than the barrel, the water leaving the pipes will create a vacuum which will siphon water from your source into the pipes.
While the water pressure will be low (making it take a while to refill the toilet tank), this system will work if the plumbing in the house is still intact following a disaster.
The only drawback to this system is that U.S. toilets are up to five gallons of water per flush (as opposed to one gallon for those of other countries). Therefore, unless you have a good source of water during a crisis, hauling water to keep your plumbing going is an iffy proposition.
Cesspools and Septic Tanks for Waste Disposal
In any event, a cesspool or septic tank into which you can feed wastes from your shelter or home (either through a gravity system or with a pump) would be a great advantage both from a convenience standpoint as well as a health standpoint.
Cesspools were the forerunner to the modern septic tank. The cesspool is better than digging holes for bags of waste—but not a whole lot better.
A cesspool is basic. ally just deep hole dug 10 or 15 feet into the earth and lined with bricks. The bottom is left open to the earth and covered with a foot or more of layers of sand, gravel, and rock (in that order).
The top of the hole is covered airtight to allow anaerobic bacteria to “digest” waste and to keep surface water out (as well as stray children and animals). Sewage is drained into this pit via a sewer pipe.
A cesspool is safe to use for waste disposal only if it is well away from water supplies (this generally means downhill from a water source) and if it is large enough to handle the sewage coming into it.
In areas where the population is small, cesspools can do a fair job of treating human wastes by using bacteria to break down the sewage before it travels far into the earth.
Cesspools are not Forever. Over time the sludge builds up in them so that they must be abandoned and new ones dug. But a cesspool is inexpensive to construct and might be a good idea in a sewage system for a shelter which would be used only during an emergency.
In such a case, a cesspool would be far superior to trying to store wastes in plastic bags, containers, or an open pit. In general, the bigger the cesspool is and the less material flowing into it, the longer it will keep going.
Most cesspools will last only a decade or two. Size of a cesspool will depend on how far it is from water supplies and how quickly water is absorbed into the earth. Size should be at least 30 to 60 cubic feet per person using it.
The septic tank is similar to the cesspool but is made so that the sludge can be cleaned out of it and so that water which has been processed by it is ejected back into the environment more fully processed and made safe (though it is still wise to have the septic tank downhill from water supplies).
Septic tanks generally have one to three chambers. Two-chamber tanks are the most efficient and desirable. The first chamber collects all the waste and uses anaerobic bacteria digestion of the sludge. The second section holds the processed effluent until its chamber is full, then the liquid is automatically pushed out as more waste enters the system.
While in the second section of some tanks, aerobic digestion takes place (these tanks have a vent pipe in the section chamber). The discharge from the second section of the tank is then routed through a pipe into “vitrification beds” of gravel.
The vitrification beds expose the water to the air and sunlight (both of which kill many harmful bacteria) and then allow the water to filter into the earth or a nearby body of water where bacteria finish breaking down any organic wastes in the discharge.
While theoretically, a septic tank can go forever, generally sludge will build up so that it has to be cleaned out from time to time. Since during a crisis, the owner of a septic tank should be prepared to do the “dirty work” himself. It is wise when installing a septic tank to place an extra-large cleanout opening over each chamber in the top of the septic tank. These will allow the tank to be cleaned manually.
Be sure that this opening is secured so that the uninformed and curious can’t accidentally open the tank up and fall in.
The size for a septic tank depends on the number of people using it. To increase capacity for waste disposal, only the length and width should be altered since the depth is critical for bacteria-action.
Ideally the depth of liquid in the tanks should be four feet with a foot of air space over it. The capacity for a septic tank should be at least 10 to 15 cubic feet per person using the system. Septic tanks are generally constructed of concrete.
A septic tank empties its processed water into vitrification beds. Many modern vitrification beds are buried in the ground: while bacteria in the earth are capable of breaking down the organic matter in dis-charge water, there is also some danger of contaminating groundwater with this method.
To be on the safe side with an under-ground discharge vitrification field, the following test should be conducted:
First, dig down two feet into the area where the underground vitrification field will be placed.
Next, pour water into the hole to a depth of six inches and time it as it seeps into the earth.
Now divide the time by six (to determine the average time it takes one inch of water to sink into the earth) and use this rate of change to find the square feet of area to be covered by the vitrification field:
VITRIFICATION FIELD SIZE
1-inch Fall: 2 3 4 5 10 15 30 60
Size Needed: 50 60 70 80 100 130 180 240
The info you have now is for ONE person using the septic system. Be sure to multiply the figure by the total number of people in your group. If a large number of people are using a septic tank, be sure to use a number of vitrification fields connected by “T” connectors rather than having one very large—and inefficient—field.
Each vitrification bed is usually a trench into which the discharge water travels through an iron or tile pipe. The pipe opens into the vitrification field composed of coarse gravel 8 to 24 inches deep. If the field is to be covered, a layer of plastic sheeting should go over the gravel and at least one foot of compacted earth over that.
Vitrification beds that aren’t covered by earth will have a greater efficiency since some water can evaporate into the air. The air will also speed up the killing of any dangerous bacteria which manage to travel through the septic system into the vitrification field. Learn more about what a septic tank does here.
Waste Disposal and Sewer Lines
Since the plumber won’t be making house calls during a nuclear war or the like, it is wise to have sewer lines leading to and from a septic tank, or cesspools placed well away from trees so that the system won’t get clogged up with roots.
For a minimal pipe run, it is also possible to build a “privy” directly over a septic tank.
Both septic tanks and cesspools use living bacteria to break down the household wastes entering them. The less air getting into the system, the better the bacteria-action in a cesspool and in the first tank in a septic tank.
Also, many household chemicals can kill off the bacteria necessary for efficient handling of organic waste in a cesspool or septic tank. Flushing such chemicals into a cesspool or septic tank can cause the system to fail and render a tank useless: great care must be taken in what is sent into the sewage system when it is a small, single unit.
If the bacteria colony in a septic system is accidentally killed off, it is possible to purchase packages of bacteria spores of the type which “digest” wastes in septic tanks. These packages could save the day if you accidentally killed off the bacteria in a septic tank or if you were starting up a tank in a post-disaster situation.
These packets are available in many hardware stores. If large numbers of survivors are in an area and it is uncontaminated by fallout or other dangerous materials, it is essential to get systems of latrines set up and make their use mandatory.
Failure to do this will guarantee the deaths of many of the survivors through disease. Principle considerations in setting up latrines are to keep vermin (especially insects) out of the latrine and away from living areas and to keep the effluent coming from the latrine from seeping into the groundwater or other water supplies.
If at all possible, a septic tank system should be created for each latrine, though a cesspool directly under a latrine is a viable solution if speed is needed in setting up the system and all you have is hand labor and no cement.
In a major disaster, disposal of animal carcasses, as well as human bodies, would also be a prime consideration in order to prevent the spread of disease. In such situations, mass graves are usually best if earth-moving equipment is available. If such equipment isn’t available, then bodies should be covered with dirt as close to where they are located as possible.
Burning bodies is a viable alternative if fuel and manpower are available for transferring bodies to a central location.
Improvisation will probably be the name of the game in such a situation: wooden buildings might be utilized as large pyres.
Concluding on waste disposal
Give a lot of serious thought to your waste disposal and toilet facilities. They are of prime importance not just to your mental wellbeing but to your health and survival as well. You can greatly improve your survival chances by using good hygiene and modern methods of waste disposal.