Sanitation in the City: What To Do When the Toilet Won’t Flush

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By Daisy Luther

Did you ever stop to put some thought into the flushing power of your toilet?

It’s one of those things we in modern society take for granted. We use the restroom, then we flush, wash our hands, and forget it.

But during extreme scenarios, this isn’t always so easy. When researching my book, The Prepper’s Water Survival Guide, I spent a lot of time reading about water, sanitation, and waterborne illness. These issues are all closely linked, and it’s vital to find solutions.

If you’re on a septic system, you have a safe place for your waste to go during most types of disasters, assuming you have additional water on hand for flushing.

But, in the city, on a public sewer system, there exists the possibility that a situation could arise during which flushing is not an option. Do you remember during the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy when residents of high-rise apartment buildings couldn’t flush because the city water system was down?  There were numerous reports that people were so desperate that they were defecating in the hallways.  They quoted a resident of a senior apartment complex, Anna Hay, who said, “They can’t go upstairs to go to the bathrooms. Where are they going to go? They’re walking all around for a place to go. There’s nowhere to go in this area.” (source)

With some very small and inexpensive preparations, it doesn’t have to come down to that. Just having a portable toilet is not enough for good hygiene and safety. If you live in an urban area, going outside to do your business may not an option. You have to figure out a way to take care of this, indoors, while maintaining the health of your environment.

As a former city prepper, I’ve been through a few situations during which our toilets were inoperable due to a local disaster. Luckily, I had the supplies on hand to create a kitty litter box for people, so my children and I were able to stay in the safety of our home without risking illness due to poor sanitation.

How to Make a Kitty Litter Potty

Here’s all you need to make a litter box for people:

  • Kitty Litter (For this purpose, get a scented one)
  • Extremely heavy garbage bags (Get the kind that contractors use and do NOT skimp on the garbage bags, whatever you do)
  • Your toilet or this “luggable loo” (which is awesome for only $20)

Hopefully, you realized you weren’t going to be able to flush before using your toilet. If there is waste sitting in your toilet, you’re going to need to get rid of it. Not fun, I know, but if it sits there for several days, it’s going to smell terrible, even with the lid down. To get rid of it, you’ll need to have a bag set up with a bit of kitty litter in it. Then, use a cheap dollar store utensil like a slotted spoon to fish out the poop. Try not to hurl, because that’s just something else you’ll have to dispose of. Get rid of the slotted spoon because you will NEVER want to stir beans with that one again. You’d have flashbacks.

Now that this is out of the way, you have two options. You can line your toilet and continue to use it following the directions below, or you can switch to the luggable loo, which is basically just a 5-gallon bucket equipped with a toilet seat and a lid. The process is the same for either one.

If you’re using your toilet, turn the water off to the tank. (The knob for this should be on the wall at the back of it.)

Line the toilet with a garbage bag. Let me repeat: DO NOT GO CHEAP ON THE GARBAGE BAGS!  You want to use the best ones you can get your hands on. The ones for contractors are designed to carry very heavy loads. (There’s a horrible pun that I’m resisting making right now.)  The last thing you want is for a bag full of human waste to break as you are carrying it out of your house.  Put the bag in the bowl, then pull the top of the bag down over the edges of the toilet. Put the seat down to hold the bag into place.

If you’re using the Loo, line it with a garbage bag.  Same as above, put the bag into the bucket, then pull the top edges down the side of the bucket. Put the seat down to hold the bag into place.

From here, the steps are the same.

Put a handful of kitty litter into the bottom of the bag to start off. Although I don’t usually like scented products, this is an extreme scenario. Trust me, you want scent. Put the bucket of kitty litter beside the toilet and put a scoop in it (about a 1 cup scoop)

Now you can use the bathroom. When someone has to go, they should do their business then toss a little bit of kitty litter on top of it.  Don’t go crazy – just a cup of litter should do the trick. Remember, it’s designed to cover the smell of poop. Put the lid down on the toilet or loo after you use it.

Don’t let it get too heavy before taking it outside.  For the love of all things cute and fluffy, watch the weight of your human litter. It will soak up urine and become heavy clumps of clay. (Anyone who has ever changed a litter box knows how heavy it can get.)  Remove the bag and discard it outside before it becomes a) too heavy to handle or b) heavy enough to cause the bag to break. If you’re using good quality garbage bags, “a” is more likely than “b”.  Most likely, you’ll need to take the bag out once per day. It could be more if you have a large family or if someone is ill and making abundant use of the potty.

This is obviously not a solution for a very long-term situation, because you would have to dispose of the bags of poop. However, in a shorter term scenario, you should be able to load the bags into a garbage can outside and deal with them when services are restored.

Be certain to wash your hands well after dealing with human waste. Although I’m not usually a fan of hand sanitizer, in these kinds of situations, I strongly suggest the use of it. Your family could become extremely ill if good hand hygiene and waste management techniques are not practiced.

Recommended products:

luggable loo
Luggable Loo: About $20

Luggable Loo

contractor bags
Extremely Heavy Duty Garbage Bags

Contractor Garbage Bags

Preppers water survival guide

The Prepper’s Water Survival Guide: Harvest, Treat, and Store Your Most Vital Resource

Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther is a coffee-swigging, globe-trotting blogger. She is the founder and publisher of three websites.  1) The Organic Prepper, which is about current events, preparedness, self-reliance, and the pursuit of liberty on her website, 2)  The Frugalite, a website with thrifty tips and solutions to help people get a handle on their personal finances without feeling deprived, and 3), an aggregate site where you can find links to all the most important news for those who wish to be prepared. She is widely republished across alternative media and  Daisy is the best-selling author of 5 traditionally published books and runs a small digital publishing company with PDF guides, printables, and courses. You can find her on FacebookPinterest, Gab, MeWe, Parler, Instagram, and Twitter.

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  • Ms. Luther,
    May I suggest the following website:, where you will find the Humanore Handbook, free for download. There is a great deal of info here on dealing with human waste. It is surprisingly well-written, informative and entertaining, despite the subject matter.

    Also, in a true “Humanore-Hit-The-Fan (HHTF) 🙂 scenario, I would highly recommend that people leave the city if they can. If and when the power grid goes down, people who remain in the cities will be facing major sanitation issues as the death tolls rise from starvation and disease. Modern cities can only exist if the infrastructure/technology is available to support large populations. I could not find a link to it from work but, if you can get it, I highly recommend James Burke’s old but excellent and relevant video series “The Day the Universe Changed” and “Connections” in general and the episode “The Technology Trap” in particular. I was able to find this link to some excepts from that episode on YouTube:

    Hope these help.


  • Sound advice, Daisy!

    I did take the thought one step further, though. And that is, What can you do to keep everyone ELSE’s sewage from backing up into your toilets (and drains)?

    I can’t find the link to the information I had printed out for myself last year, but looking up “what to do about a sewage backup in an emergency” was not the right search. That just gives you numbers to call for people to fix it for you afterward, which I wouldn’t think would happen (at least not soon) after a dire event.

    The thing to look up information on is this kind of backflow prevention device: “A common device called a Backflow Preventor (BFP) can be installed in your plumbing system by a licensed plumber, and can effectively shut off the home or business from the street sewer system during extreme sewage backups. Automatic and manual BFPs are available. However, if the device is closed, you must not use the toilet, sink, shower, washer, dishwasher or any appliance that discharges wastewater. If you have a BFP installed, be sure to inspect it regularly.” (Here’s the PDF that quote came from: )

  • Wow! Thanks for making a delicate subject so funny and informative! Your solutions were easy to follow and inexpensive too.

  • Good idea but what do you do with the bags of used scented kitty litter? Can they be emptied and buried to decompose? Would the scent chemicals be an environmental issue? How about adding essential oils to plain kitty litter? Would that be more environmentally friendly?

    • You can certainly scent your own, but kitty litter is designed to absorb the smell of waste. While it my not be the most environmentally friendly thing, this is a short term solution for an outage lasting up to a couple of weeks. Kitty litter won’t really decompose, so you’d need to take the used bags to the outside garbage to be thrown away, and be picked up once services are restored. The point of this is a quick, inexpensive answer to the question of what you can do if your toilet won’t flush and you live in a place where going outside is not an option.

  • Hey Daisy, a cheaper, lighter, very environmentally friendly solution is to use sawdust as recommended in the Humanure Handbook. Cabinet shops, sawmills, a wookworking neighbor (among other places) are more than willing to have you haul some away for free. We have a cedar sawmill nearby which makes heavenly smelling sawdust, but it doesn’t compost as nicely as pine or hardwood sawdust. I highly recommend the Humanure Handbook, not only is it very informative but a hoot to read.

  • If you’re using your toilet, turn the water off to the tank and also scoop out all of the water in the bowl. It won’t flush without dumping more water in so you’re back to square one. So you have to scoop it out.

  • Very interesting article! Have you considered compost toilets? I work with Toilets for People ( and we’re a super small group at the moment developing compost toilets for those living off grid whether by choice or circumstance. If you’re interested or just curious, we can answer any questions or do an interview for your website. Feel free to email me.

    • Nice idea there, Phoebe. I wonder how much one of those costs? I know some older people who would not be able to climb up on that thing, it would require building a sloping ramp or something and adding some hand rails, imho.

      It seems like a person could use one of those the same way a person uses a Luggable Loo, only yours looks quite a bit more stable than a Luggable Loo. That’s a Big plus.

      Daisy mentions using the big contractor bags in Luggable Loo’s, seems to me like that’s a bit of overkill, the bags are too tall for the purpose, I think. Seems to me double bagging a shorter bag would be a better (and less costly?) option, two bags being as think as one contractor bag?

      Anyway, it looks like a plastic bag would work on the lower ‘tray’ of The Crapper. I would not want to have to clean/wash one out, that’s why I don’t have one of those common two compartment camping toilets, plus I’ve read about leaks, something I’d want to avoid, another Big Plus for The Crapper.
      I Can Do many things, however; There’s No Way I’m doing the kitty-litter scoop. Dumping a tray would be hard, I’m not sure if I could overcome my Western limitations to be able to do that either. Necessity would have to kick in, I suppose.

  • I’ve been pooping in a bucket for many many years at my little off the grid cabin. I even take it on the road sometimes, for when I am car camping or going to big festivals where I can set up camp. I will share what I have learned.

    1) 5 gallon bucket – get at Home Depot or a paint store, or sometimes for free at grocery stores (deli)

    2) 8 gallon trash bags. They fit perfectly. Snap the seat over them. Double up if you have to carry the bags or put them in a car or backpack to get rid of them.

    3) Seat that snaps on to 5 gallon bucket – get at camping / outdoor store or order online

    4) Absorbant medium – kitty litter is fine but expensive. I use a mix of lime and sawdust. You can also use ashes from a fireplace or woodstove, dry leaves or dry dirt. Put some in the bucket to start and then a cup or so after every poop.

    5) MOST IMPORTANT PART !!! Do not pee in the bucket. Trust me, this is the real key. Pee is what makes it stink horribly. For guys, pee in a large cup. You can do it before you poop, standing up, or you can hold the cup in front of the bucket as you poop. Then just toss the pee out in the yard. You can put it down the drain of your sink or tub but you need to wash it down with some water. And if your sewer system is blocked, don’t do this at all or your whole house will stink. For girls, use a pee funnel. They are about 9 bucks at Cabelas and allow a girl to pee into a large cup. If you don’t pee in the bucket and use the sawdust / lime mix, you can get a lot of use out of your ‘toilet’ before it becomes intolerable and has to be emptied.

    6) Advanced – use two bags, but only tuck one (the outer) bag under the seat. The inner one can be brought up through the hole and laid over the seat. When you’ve done your business, twist it up and fold it down in the bucket, so your poop is trapped in the bag. Reduces odor quite a bit.

    One last note is to keep the bucket out of the sun or away from a heat source. You can leave it outside but make sure it is protected from predators, who will try to get into the bucket. Not so bad in winter when it will freeze but other times it can be a problem.

    Keep some wet wipes with the bucket. I use compostable wetwipes to wipe my bottom, wipe the seat, wipe my hands. Overkill but it makes me feel super clean. You can also use paper products and hand sanitizer if you like.

  • Put a bottle and funnel in the pail, and separate urine from fecal, using sawdust to cover fecal. You will have absolutely no odor at all. Dig a post hole somewhere were where the soil needs amending and dump fecal only down hole may last a week or more to fill depending on family size cover hole with board, look up uses for urine now while you can a very useful commodity. Or just water your plants or garden with it using other gray water too.
    When separated fecal is not heavy, it starts to decompose before full. Urine is the heavy part make a makeshift urinal from a large water bottle and funnel for men.
    Make a DIY natures head or purchase one if you have the money.
    Or use two Lug able Loos. No chemicals needed, animal bedding, soil or peat, is also good to cover with you will love this.
    This is the nicest no smell version ever invented by natures head.

  • If you’re camping or on the road, the 5 gallon bucket is fine, but if you’re inside your home, a standard sickroom commode is much easier to use. There are folding kinds for storing.

  • sanitation bucket, bags, and bottle in bag, and funnel.
    Separate the products and no Oder.
    In bucket cover with sawdust, can for scoop and stick about 18 ” cat style.
    In bottle in front, inside bucket with funnel, empty often
    Can also use dirt, peat much lighter than litter.
    Dig hole out side depth of post and pour bucket content in and cover with some dirt 2-4” board on top and brick. will hold lots depending on size of family.
    Learn about urine it has 23 names and is your doctor when there is not one, or just use as fertilizer for garden or trees.

    • Im on 7th floor apt. One day our toilet wudnt flush, was clogged, not lack of supply water. Advised super, finally 5 hr later a guy showed up with a plunger. No joy. He said he would call a plumber. Plumber showed up at 7. By then i had peed twice in a 10 oz disposable plastic glass & flushed it down kitchen drain with 2 cups of water each time. When i had to poo i put a garbage bag in a HD bucket, no fancy seat or rim. Just sat, pood, even put the TP in the bag. Toilet taken off, fixed by 10pm. My wife is a camel, can hold it forever. I put the bag in our organic dumpster, it will be split open & macerated at the recycling plant.

  • If you have a bucket of water, say a 5 gallon bucket, you can dump that down the toilet bowl or fill the tank to get rid of that poop instead of spooning it out by hand. Most toilets are 1.6 gallon flush, so keeping a couple of gallon jugs of water for that purpose might be a good idea.

  • I wonder, would it be possible to separate solid from liquid, and use kitty litter to absorb the liquid, for those who don’t have the ability to dispose of the liquid outdoors or down a sink?

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