Camping & Survival

A Heaping Pile of… What to do With Garbage When SHTF

I don’t remember what year it was, but while in college during one Christmas break, I had a 10-hour layover in Paris, France in the middle of a sanitation worker strike. The airport was no exception to the strike. Needless to say, the situation was messy and awkward. Where was I supposed to put my water bottles and leftovers from lunch? I didn’t feel comfortable throwing it on the floor, but what other choice did I have?

In 2007, American’s largest trash removal provider, Waste Management, Inc. locked out 480 workers. Garbage piled up for three weeks in Northern California. So much so that parents felt it was unsafe for their children to go outside.

After assessing the damage of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality figured the devastating hurricane resulted in 22 million tons of garbage—20.5 million more tons than the World Trade Center Twin Towers collapse. And this was just in the Southeastern part of Louisiana.

Fortunately, for those three stories, we knew clean up would be eventually handled appropriately.

Trash causes health and environmental problems. Trash that isn’t disposed of properly can cause the spread of disease and release toxins into the air and our water systems. In fact, The Plague was caused by garbage pile-up. Unsanitary conditions in the streets due to trash attracted flea-invested rats. The fleas then bit humans, resulting in the deaths of 25 million people.

The average person in the United States produces nearly five pounds of trash a day. Certainly, we take our weekly pick up service for granted. We bag our trash, throw it in a city-provided bin, take the bin to the curb, and no longer think about it. In the case of a total collapse, what would happen if we weren’t confident city services would ever be restored? What is one to do with all that trash?

  1. Burn it.

Country folks know all about burning trash. After all, it is the old way of dealing with garbage. However, these days, we throw away a lot of plastics that release toxic chemicals when burned. Not to mention, a lot of smoke and smell will draw attention to your location. Only burn paper products and organic material. Stay away from burning plastics. Keep your burn pile in a burn barrel—my cousin uses an old washing machine tub—and burn only a little at a time to keep smoke and smell to a minimum.

  1. Bury it.

About half of our country’s trash is buried in landfills. Buried properly, it can be a safe and sanitary way to dispose of garbage. Choosing to bury your trash means you need to be aware if animals can dig it up and if it will contaminate your water supply

  1. Compost it.

Any organic material will work as fertilizer for your garden, including coffee grounds, grass and leaves. Even paper products will compost. However, avoid glossy papers covered in colored ink. Oils, fats, meat, fish and bones should not be composted. Any leftover meat or fish can be fed to your pigs and chickens.

  1. Reuse it.

Paper products can be used to start fires for warmth and cooking. Plastics—after properly washing them out—make perfect storage for water and other liquids. Tin cans become candleholders, grease containers and even siding for shelters. If it can be repurposed, then use it again.

  1. Don’t Make As Much of it.

Keep this in mind while planning and purchasing your preps. Sure, paper plates and paper towels are quick, convenient, and easier to clean up, but also cause unnecessary rubbish. Buy containers that can be reused and repurposed. Instead of cases of tin cans, can food yourself in glass mason jars. Avoid buying items for your long-term food storage that would create more garbage.

Quite frankly, though, after a few weeks, there just wouldn’t be as much trash. Grocery bags, receipts, junk mail, wrappers, paper towels, newspapers, napkins and other disposable paper products will just run out.

Do you have a plan for your trash when SHTF? Tell us what it is in the comment section.


The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (11)

  1. Cleetus: There was a good article on this in the “Guide Book for Marines” although I haven’t seen mine for years. We were taught to dig a cat hole one cubic foot deep for a personal deposit and a slit trench: one foot deep by one foot wide as long as you need to accommodate your group. Bagging and storing body waste is dangerous. It attracts vermin and disease. If and when the SHTF our suburban back yards may be the safest disposal sight available.

  2. Lawrence: A couple of things: We are about the same age and we might even be alumni of the same finishing school of hard knocks that offered extension classes in South East Asia. I’m not only uncomfortable with the new technology, I don’t trust it.

    Frankly, the only difference I’ve seen between the two types of containers is the color and price. I store my dry and canned goods in 5 gallon plastic cans with tight fitting lids and wire handles you can find at any home improvement center. When I ask them about the difference to justify the price their explanation doesn’t match the price difference.

    I go a lot by what we used as 782 gear at the time and what they’re using now. Beyond that follow your field sanitation training and I think that we’ll be fine. What’s your take on this? Hank

  3. You have given us some valuable information. My question is: where can we find “food grade barrels”? In the meantime, I’ll try finding them on the computer, there is a lot of information out there if you know how to search. I’m a 70 year old veteran of Viet Nam and am only semi-literate on the computer. Stay safe and prepared, Larry.

  4. As mentioned I live in the country and have utilized burn barrels all along. And as mentioned they need to be well ventilated to allow for a good hot burn which will render any combustible materials to ash which is easily disposed of. Although not environmentally friendly, I will admit that if it will burn it goes in the barrel. And to probably add further insult to injury I will take my used oils and pour over the trash like salad dressing and then lite it up. With proper ventilation it burns so hot and fast that there is very little if any smoke. This is how I get rid of all the combustible materials and all of the used oil and any solvents generated (the latter two are poured into and stored in a 55 gal. drum on its side with a spigot for access). The added solvents such as any old paint thinners and gasoline used to clean automotive parts make the oils burn more efficiently. I must add ‘BOYS AND GIRLS DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME’. As far as the non combustibles such as cans and glass, they go to town when they have accumulated to a drum liner full which is only every month or so, to my relatives house that has city trash pickup. This all works for me now and when there is no more trash pick up available I’ll bury the metal that will rust and I’ll only be left with glass that can be reused. I heat with wood and get rid of quit a bit of my paper products that way. I know burning is not environmentally friendly, but I feel that it is the lesser of evils for right now and when shtf.

  5. I could care less about the garbage that might pile up. What has me far more concerned is what to do over the long term in a SHTF situation with human wastes. Toilets will stop working and, in even wide open suburbs, outhouses won’t be the answer. Yeah, you can bag it or store it like in a portable toilet, it eventually this will become filled and then what.

    In a SHTF situation, eventually people are going to run out of stuff which means garbage will become less and less a problem as the source term goes away, but everyone has to eat and drink which means the problems with feces and liquid wastes will never go away. Where is the article for this problem?

  6. When the fecal material its the fan we’re going to have to do exactly what was suggested. If you’re not composting you should be. It’s the best amendment you can get for your soil and if it’s done right there’s no smell. A Rubber Maid trash can and a one inch hole saw makes a great starter bin and you can compost paper and cardboard as well as green and brown plant waste.
    Burning gets rid of combustible waste and makes heat. Remember the incinerators of the fifties? We didn’t use them for heat but it got rid of everything but garbage. When we’re done all that should be left over is plastic and aluminum cans.
    We have to get back to recycling the containers our food and beverages come in too. This throw away society of ours has to change. Hank

  7. What your garbage tells about you may get you killed in most severe SHTF.
    f you decide home canning with glass buy extra s upplys such as lids, rings, jelly elections and your cleaning brushes etc even extra thermometer to insure your meats and chickens were properly prepared surprised at how many cans after removal of both ends and flattened you can fit in a 3’x4’x2′ Hole.
    Garages are a defensive nightmare and many people will store foods and goods in variable temp environment.
    I remember hippy whose Ball canning jars all broke during freeze all summers foods gone.
    Home canning best way to preserve “Bounty”; such as bunch of pigeons lured and shot at one time..
    Do not cut just use gallon containers and you can do your leftovers of siniew and bloodshot orWet the papereven hides for pet foods.
    Wet all papers into stacks and then place flat board on top to let dry; or you can get wet and the roll up to dry, you make fire logs that burn clean and last awhile. . GALLON CANS CUT AND CANDLES PLACED MAKE DIRECTIONAL LIGHTS OR HEATERS.

  8. I live in a city, and I bought a Gamo Bone Collector edition .177 pellet rifle for situations such as described, in order to control varmints / pests. I could also use the pellet rifle to shoot doves & pigeons off high line wires & fences for meat if the availability of food was interrupted. You would probably have to boil water in a long-term shut-down of city utilities…. and dropping some fresh meat into a slow cooking cast iron pot would make a fine stew or soup stock in a few hours. Add some of your hoarded rice and / or beans [don’t forget to put back some spices & dried veggies] and you are ready to feed the family.

    As for disposal of trash in a large city situation, burning seems to be the best way… I have a couple of clean food grade 55 gallon steel drums put back for storage. To make a burn barrel out of a drum, just be sure to punch a few ventilation holes in the sides approx. 6″ up from the bottom of the barrel so air will get sucked-in and keep the fire going. Otherwise, your fire will keep going out [smothering itself with not enough oxygen] and the mess will smolder & smoke terribly. If you need to put your fire out relatively quickly, just slap the lid on and it will smother itself. Don’t use water as it will take the temper out of the metal…making it weak & more susceptible to rusting quickly. Throw some screen wire over the top of the barrel to keep sparks from setting near-by structures & brush on fire.

    Additionally, since burning your trash and using that fire as a source of heat for cooking might run together…..I’ll add this, if you search around you can find used 150-180 gallon food grade plastic tote tanks in a metal cage for water storage. Lots of large businesses buy syrups and other liquid food ingredients in bulk and then sell the containers when empty for as little as $50-$100. ***** Make darn sure you don’t get one that has ever had pesticides in them [[[you want a food grade container]]], as farmers sell the same kind of totes that have had Round-up and other such poisonous chemicals in them.;_ylt=A0SO8z5z7rZSj3QA_xFXNyoA;_ylu=X3oDMTBxa3YwODBiBHNlYwNzYwRjb2xvA2dxMQR2dGlkAzIwMl8x?_adv_prop=image&fr=yfp-t-900-s&va=water+tote+tank

  9. excellent article, however,you are preaching to the chior as many of your readers are already running compost piles and saving many recyleable plastics and metals keep up the good work!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Your discussions, feedback and comments are welcome here as long as they are relevant and insightful. Please be respectful of others. We reserve the right to edit as appropriate, delete profane, harassing, abusive and spam comments or posts, and block repeat offenders. All comments are held for moderation and will appear after approval.

Discover more from The Shooter's Log

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading