People in the apocalypse are always portrayed as savage, dirty, and on the brink of killing everyone else.
This makes perfect sense. You see, they no longer have flush toilets.
I don’t know how much time most of you have spent without this modern convenience. Growing up in southeast Ohio, I can’t say that a lack of this sanitary feature was a huge part of my childhood, but it certainly wasn’t uncommon. The toilets at the soccer field were pit toilets—that is to say, everything went into a concrete pit that was periodically emptied by truck—and so were the roadside rest stop facilities.
But it went beyond that. I had friends whose homes were equipped with toilets housed a good twenty feet from the main building, in little sheds with primitive lighting. As I visited most of those houses in summer, they were just fine, but often I wondered how obnoxious that sort of thing would be in the pouring rain, six inches of snow, or just plain when it was freezing cold in the middle of the night. Because they may have had outhouses, but I was reasonably certain my friends didn’t have chamber pots. After all, we’re modern people, right? Peeing in a pot just seems a bit, well. Not done.
These friends, or more accurately their parents, had these outdoor toilets because their houses were located in the middle of nowhere, far from the reaches of the city sewer system. Their water was from wells, their toilets were outdoors, and as a kid, that was all I knew.
Hey, the events of What Boys Are Made Of take place post a second civil war, with people who live far away from city sewage systems. When I started writing it, it wasn’t long before I connected my childhood with this circumstance and came up with the fact that my characters used outhouses. Ta-dah!
At that point, if you’d asked me what exactly that meant, I would have said, “You know, an outhouse. Not in the house.” An outdoor toilet is an outdoor toilet, right? Dig pit. Put seat on it. Isn’t that what they all are?
Turns out, there are lots of kinds of toilets that aren’t the ones I’ve always known. I had no idea until I when on Wikipedia and searched “outhouse.”
Cue flashing red lights saying “things are about to get difficult” as I fell into a three-hour fact-gathering tour of every article on sanitation Wikipedia had to offer.
Turns out, no, in the apocalypse I wouldn’t necessarily have a pit in my backyard with a little house centered over it with a moon cut out in the door.
First of all, I might have nothing. Er. Digging a toilet is a lot of work. You have to line them with something or they leech into the groundwater, which is where cholera comes from.
In fact, it was the understanding of human waste spreading contaminates that lead to germ theory and the development of modern sanitation: all from the fact that a cholera outbreak could be traced to the water from a single pump in London in 1854, figured out by a guy named John Snow. (I know, I laughed too.) Figuring out that poo should not be in the water because it carries germs is what killed miasma theory dead, figuratively. Before that, people thought disease came from bad air, particularly smells.
(Fun fact: Japan still practices miasma theory. If you’ve ever wondered why someone is opening the windows when it’s 20F outside, it’s to “let the flu out.” Uh…)
So alright. I’m a person in the apocalypse. I have decided going to the bathroom in a field is intolerable. Pit latrines, in which the waste basically goes in a great big pit rather than my drinking water, are a great idea, but they have some serious drawbacks, the first of being that they stink. What do I do?
First, I can fit my pit latrine with a ventilation pipe. Because this is the apocalypse, it’ll be an old drain pipe from someone’s gutter system. This is especially handy because it will probably have a screen on one end. In a previous life, that kept out leaves; in this one, it will stop flies and mosquitoes from getting into the pit. This pipe will go from the pit to up high to vent gasses. Far less smelly!
What improvement should I affect next? Well, this is the apocalypse. Lots of people are dead for whatever reason, and lots of houses are abandoned. So I could sit on a board with a hole in it, or I could get smart and rig up a toilet over my pit latrine! (Worry about stabilizing it in another post and go with it.) What does this get me besides comfort? A water-sealed toilet.
Have you ever walked into a house that’s been empty for a while and smelled the sink? It stinks, right? That’s because the water in the P-trap has dried up and sewer gasses are leaking into the house. Turn on the sink for a minute and the smell will be gone—and toilets work the same way. Keep a bucket of water next to your toilet, along with a ladle, and voila, you have a flush toilet, in the apocalypse.
People are brilliant, aren’t they?
But you still have one basic problem: at some point, your toilet will be full. As in, needing emptied.
Can you say “ew?”
This is obviously not a great task to undertake, and so personally, in my apocalyptic landscape where I’ve managed to avoid paying taxes, I’m not going to jump right into the manual labor equivalent of dealing with the IRS.
In short, I’ve poo-poo’d the idea of a pit latrine.
(Here I would like to personally apologize to my parents, who taught me to not to use toilet langue in polite company. But c’mon, this is the perfect time for these puns!)
What are my alternatives?
I could set up an arborloo, which is basically a pit latrine that grows a tree. Or a dry toilet, which is a bit less smelly, but is basically having two buckets with lids and emptying them somewhere else. (Okay, it’s more complicated than that, and that includes bucket toilets, but frankly I’d rather not go into the details because, seriously, just no.)
Or I could go for a composting toilet, in which diligent management of the waste breakdown leads to creating a non-pathogenic-carrying fertilizer from yesterday’s dinner, if you do it right. Or rather, a year-ago’s dinner.
This is a bit tricky, because “doing it right” involves a good design, lots of aeration, and, to be optimal, keeping everything at the correct temperature for decomposition. You have to add things like sawdust or peat moss to the toilet after you use it, which not everyone wants to bother with. But at the end, emptying your toilet, rather than giving you an infectious disease, results in better vegetables! Though you might want to give them an extra scrub.
For that reason, a composting toilet is what I ended up giving my characters. Or rather, Erin references having recently gained the money to install one due to Simon’s prizefighting purses, implying they had a pit latrine before.
Compared to a pit latrine, a composting toilet is safer, cleaner, and far more desirable. A luxury well worth fighting for, in this case literally. Or so Simon thinks. Hell, I do.
Though you know, coming back to my kitchen table in my comfy, air-conditioned apartment, I’m going to vote we just don’t have an apocalypse any time soon. You know?
How have you seen sanitary concerns addressed in the apocalypse? Are you one of those readers who has to know, or do you prefer not to think about it? Can you recommend any books which address these concerns within the prose? Which choice would you go with in the apocalypse?
I’m S. Hunter Nisbet, writer of post-apocalyptic dystopian novels of the dark and gritty type. When I’m not researching toilets on Wikipedia, I’m at my desk in Southeast Ohio, conjuring nightmares and occasionally catching Bulbasaurs in Pokemon Go.
Want to read a post-apocalyptic world that has mostly figured out its sanitation problems, but is still grappling with the social ones? Click the covers and check them out!