November 13, 2023
Ocean Sewage Alliance
Sydney West, Coda Fellow, The Nature Conservancy

Toilet Talk: What NOT to Flush in Greece

Dive into the world of Greecian toilets! From the ancient flushing toilets of Crete to the surprising toilet habits in Greece, there's more to toilets than meets the eye. Let's flush out the details and rethink our daily habits.

When was the last time you thought about toilets? Though billions of us use them every day, these impressive pieces of sanitary hardware are often overlooked.

Toilets have been around for a long time, dating back to as early as 3200 BCE. We’ve come a long way since then in terms of the standard toilet (hooray, indoor plumbing!), but there are still big differences in how people “go” across the globe.

For most people in places like the United States, toilets are just one of many places where the age-old phrase “out of sight, out of mind” applies. It’s easy to just flush and forget. But have you ever thought about what happens after you flush? Since the start of my fellowship with OSA, I’ve spent more time thinking about this than the average person, even outside of work.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to travel to Greece with family friends. It’s always exciting to be exposed to different cultures: eating different foods, learning the history, visiting the landmarks. Another big difference, though not always top of mind for most travelers, is toilets and how we use them. During my travels in Greece, I learned a bit about these differences, starting at the airport in Heraklion, Crete.

Map of Greece showing the airport in Heraklion, Crete.

Like most travelers, my first action after getting off the airplane at my destination was to find the bathroom. After waiting in the classic, longer-than-the-men’s-bathroom line, I was greeted by a sign inside the bathroom stall with the instructions:

Do not throw paper in the toilet.

My American brain’s immediate response was “…what?” Then I noticed the small trash can next to the toilet. As a woman, I’m not unfamiliar with the need to dispose of (and not flush!) sanitary items in the bathroom context. But toilet paper? That’s always gone in the toilet! Why does it need to go in a bin here in Greece?

After doing my due diligence and NOT disposing of toilet paper in the toilet, I returned to baggage claim and turned to the internet for some answers to my questions. Here’s what I learned.

You can’t flush toilet paper in Greece because the sewage pipes are much narrower than elsewhere in the world (2 inches in diameter vs. 4 inches in the U.S.!), and toilet paper can cause them to clog.

Instructional sign that reads in Greek and English: "Please throw paper towels in toilet."
© Vanessa Fou

The same flushing restrictions exist in many older buildings around the world, but Greece is one of several countries where these smaller pipes are standard. Newer buildings in Greece, like hotels or apartments, have larger pipes that can accommodate flushing toilet paper, but most older buildings require you to place your toilet paper in the trash. You can tell these newer sewage systems are less common across Greece, as there are often signs telling you that it’s actually preferred to flush paper!

The first known flushing toilet was invented in Crete, at the Palace of Knossos in 1700 BCE.

The Palace of Knossos in Crete.
The Palace of Knossos in Crete © Sydney West

Known for their advancements in plumbing, the Minoans are credited with creating the first flushing toilet at the Palace of Knossos using cisterns of water, holes in the floor and drains leading to nearby waterways. While these flushing toilets were originally only for the elite, this major step in toilet technology led to the construction of similar plumbing systems across Greece.

One of the first known toilets that flushed with water,at the Palace of Knossos
One of the first known toilets that flushed with water,at the Palace of Knossos © UNC Department of Classics

Returning to the U.S. after my trip abroad, I didn’t immediately forget the toilet paper habits I had picked up during my brief stay in Greece. But it was so easy to return to the usual, “modern” way of flushing everything down the drain. This got me thinking: maybe we should all pay a little more attention to what goes down the drain.

Our personal actions, no matter how small, can help solve the world’s sanitation crisis. World Toilet Day, an official United Nations international observance day on November 19, aims to inspire people to do just that. Learn more about World Toilet Day and how you can help make change happen.