How Long Before your City Looks like a Homeless Encampment?

Have you planned how you are going to dispose of your trash after the SHTF?
Have you planned how you are going to dispose of your trash after the SHTF?

This article about the potential rail strike and its implications for New York City’s waste and sewage raises some interesting questions about survival in a big city. Namely, what happens to the 20 million pounds of residential trash New Yorkers create every day? Where does all the sewage go when the processing plants run out of power and the pumps grind to a halt?

The reasons I left cities behind as a young prepper include the high population density, the competition for limited resources after a disaster, the limited ability to be self-sufficient, and the high likelihood of violence in a survival scenario. What I never gave much consideration to back then was hygiene and waste disposal, other than stocking some toilet paper. This article makes me think that a week or two after the sh*t hits the fan, it’s also going to pile up in the streets. Before long, your average city is going to look like a homeless encampment littered with large piles of garbage and smaller piles of poop. Add in the dead bodies that will accumulate as power outages strike and food and medicine disappear, and the problem will only grow worse.

Besides being gross, that’s a recipe for disease and infestation. If you weren’t smart enough to get out of the city before the SHTF, you’ll want to once the temperatures warm up and those pile start to fester.

Prepping for Waste Management

Unless you have a water supply and a septic system that does not require the use of a pump, you should take some time before a disaster strikes to think about how you are going to handle bodily waste when there is no water or sewer. Whether you use buckets of sawdust and a chamber pot, dig a series of latrines, or build an outhouse, it’s going to require some labor and equipment. Better to have planned that out in advance.

Dumping a couple gallons in your toilet tank and flushing will work for a little while before you risk a backup. For a long-term SHTF scenario, a pit toilet or outhouse may be your best bet. I’d hesitate to build one today without checking to see if codes allow them in your neck of the woods, but there’s nothing wrong with planning where it would go and acquiring some supplies. You can even pre-cut the crescent moon on your door.


Whether you currently drive your trash to the dump or a “convenience center” or they pick it up weekly, you need a plan for how to deal with your grbage after the SHTF. I think it will be easier dealing with trash than sewage.

First, much of our trash is packaging and junk mail. Without regular mail and package deliveries, we’ll have far less of this kind of waste to deal with. If you end up with too much paper or cardboard, you can burn it if you can’t find another use for it. But think twice; we use unprinted corrugated cardboard as a groundcover when we want to make a new plant bed.

Second, you should have little or no food waste. If you do, you need to cook less or eat more. Any edible waste should be fed to someone or something else, like your chickens. We feed so much food waste to our chickens, including things like peelings and wilted leaves, our compost pile is smaller than ever. Right now, our chickens are enjoying pumpkins left over from Halloween that we collected from a couple of neighbors. They especially like the seeds, which old wives’ tales will tell you work as dewormers. (The science is less conclusive.)

Third, you will want to save many items as possible because they might have a potential use in the future. Plastics are a good example. You can heat and re-melt thermoplastics, allowing you to cast the mix into a new shape. Just don’t mix the different recycling numbers. For example, clear PET bottles should not be mixed with white HDPE milk cartons when you are making your own plastic melt. Bits of cloth, leather, metal and other materials can also be repurposed.

Reusing, Rebuilding and Repairing

Keep in mind that after an earth-changing disaster, it may be decades before we get a fresh source of aluminum, copper, steel, microchips, nails, fine cloth, paper, and many other products. Maybe you can whittle things out of wood, grind something out of steel salvaged from a car, or forge something, but having a junk pile or boneyard where you can go and repurpose something to repair or replace something else will be a big help. It could also be useful for trade.

How long will it be after the SHTF before someone can start making glass again? Years. Save those bottles for re-use because you won’t be getting new ones. Save windows, too. At worst, I’m sure you can think of some defensive uses for broken glass.

Do you have any idea how hard it is to make nails by hand? Now think about screws. (There’s a reason they used to build with wooden pegs.) You’ll want to recover nails, screws, nuts, bolts, and any other fastener from anything you discard, even if it is just an old TV stand made from particle board. Some goes for wire.


Prepping takes its own mindset. Once the SHTF and we’re living in a post-apocalyptic world, it will require another mindset, and that might be difficult for some to adopt. Peeing outdoors, re-using that scrap of aluminum foil, cooking over an open fire, sewing up the rip in your shirt rather than buying a new pair, and hauling water will be just a few of the things you and your family will need to get used to. You can get practice today by going camping or joining an organization that practices bushcrafting or primitive skills. You can also work to reduce your waste stream at home and start saving things that might have a potential future use.

Oh, and make sure you have a shovel and maybe a pick. You know, to dig that pit toilet.