Thursday, February 25, 2016

An Earthquake Toilet Test: Excerpt from "Squatter in Los Angeles"

[This is an excerpt from "Squatter in Los Angeles," available as a Kindle book, or a pdf from the Store at]

The reason I was living there in Highland Park was because I was attracted to the work of the non-profit, whose stated goal was to research and share all aspects of “survival.”  I took on a project of experimenting with the practicality of using an alternate toilet, such as would be necessary in the aftermath of a major Los Angeles earthquake.

We purchased an inexpensive RV toilet from Big 5, and it consisted of a simple 3 gallon plastic bucket which fit into a larger bucket, which had a toilet seat and lid.  The plan was to exclusively use this simple bucket toilet in my home for a period of three months.  I kept records and the idea was to ascertain the practicality of such a toilet after an earthquake, and to share those results with whomever would be interested.

I set up the toilet near the regular indoor toilet, but turned off the water of the regular toilet so people would not be tempted to use it. I put a notebook and pen near the toilet so people would write relevant notes after they used it – especially guests.

Though we had occasional guests, it was mostly the three of us in the household who used it.  We had a rotation system of who got to empty it, and no one was enthusiastic about this aspect of the project.  When the bucket was nearly full, one of us would take it out to a trench that I dug in the yard, and bury the contents, and cover the contents with straw, earthworms, and worm castings. The toilet-bucket would be washed out, and put back into the bathroom. 

Otherwise, this simple bucket toilet was not difficult to setup or to use.

Part of our challenge was to test various methods of combating the “outhouse odor” which most people find offensive, and which also attracts flies.  We tried some blue powder that came with the RV toilet, and it seemed to work OK at keeping down the odor. We also added lemon juice added to the toilet after each use, and this also worked as well as the blue powder.  We didn’t want to rely on the blue powder product provided by the manufacturer, since in a “survival situation” when we actually would need to use this toilet, we’d probably not be able to readily get more of the mysterious blue powder.

We tried a variety of odor-beaters, and found that a lemon juice and/or baking soda combination was nearly ideal.

We began to try wood ash instead of baking powder or lemon juice.  I used a little wood stove out in the yard for cooking, and so we had a steady supply of ashes. Wood ashes are absorbent and they reduce odors, and it does make sense that just about anyone anywhere could get wood ashes. Wood ashes added to the toilet after every use worked out fine, with minimal odors and no flies.

Such a simple system like this could be done in the aftermath of an emergency when  sewer drains are  broken, and as long as the participants emptied the bucket regularly and covered the hole where the contents were buried, this would be somewhat convenient and should be hygienic. 

You could also use such a system as this on a more or less permanent basis if you were in the backwoods, too far from sewer lines and utilities – though making an outbuilding (as people did for centuries) is a much more permanent way to have a toilet.

I eventually filled and covered two of the trenches into which we poured the toilet contents during the duration of the test.  Again, each was covered with compost and earthworms after each emptying of the toilet, and the worms rapidly decomposed the contents. After about a month of covering up the trenches, I planted tomatoes in each trench, and added some trellises for the plants to grow over. The tomato plants grew surprisingly well, and were insect-free.  The plants took about two months before the fruit was ripe, and so I took a basket of the ripe fruit and added it to a salad that I made and served at one of the functions of the non-profit. 

When the meal was served, I said that I had grown the tomatoes, and everyone said they were beautiful and tasty as they ate their salads.  I’m not sure how it came up, but someone did ask me when our meal was nearly over how exactly I grew the tomatoes, and so I told them. One woman abruptly put her fork down and ate no more of the salad, and her face exhibited both disdain and disgust during the rest of that meeting. I could tell that she felt as if I had done something bad to her.

However, if you think through the biological processes involved, the tomatoes were completely safe. If the woman got ill afterwards, it was primarily from her own psychological reaction to eating tomatoes grown in decomposed feces. On the other hand, a few people congratulated me for the “daring” experiment.

In retrospect, the toilet test wasn’t simply about learning to deal with catastrophes.  It taught me a very important lesson about dealing with human feces.  It’s not really all that hard or complicated  to deal with if you do things properly.  Because part of my drive in life was to live ecologically and to take responsibility for all the resources that came into my life, I tried to grow my own food, and recycle as much as possible. It was clear to me back then that modern societies, packed together in houses in neighborhoods, are often designed in such a way that the residents are unable to deal ecologically with their own wastes.  Such was not always the case.

In fact, for the long stretch of human history, human waste was either a useful resource, as well as a source of disease and death, depending on how the people handled things. I wanted my waste to be the resource it was intended to be, not the major water waster that it has become in our society.

Over the years, I have been to the homes of friends who composted their own bodily wastes.  Some did something right because you had no clue that’s what they were doing.  In one case, the entire side yard of the woman’s home smelled of urine. It wasn’t overtly strong, and the next door neighbor probably didn’t even notice it, but we noticed it when we visited.  She was doing something wrong.

In another case, a friend composted his urine and feces and scattered it about the trees and bushes in the yard. Part of the yard reeked of the obvious odor of old urine.  Fortunately, he had a large yard and far from the noses of neighbors, but I noticed it and told him about it.  Composting human wastes shouldn’t be offensive to our senses.  I was informed that maybe wild animals were using the yard as a toilet – an insult to what little intelligence I have -- so I never brought it up again.

About 7 or 8 years after the squatting time ended, I was living with Dolores on our little plot of land, growing our food and raising chickens.  [We wrote about that time in our “Extreme Simplicity” book].

I continued to experiment with toilet alternatives during that time, and I did use an outdoor toilet that I devised which had no smell and produced compost quickly.   

You can read all about it in the "Extreme Simplicity" book, available from Amazon or

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