As long as the bins are tightly closed, and emptied daily, the health risks are minimal.
But why is it like this? Here's why you should follow the rules.
There's a very simple explanation: Greek sewage pipes are 2 inches (50mm) diameter. American and British plumbing is twice as large (4 inches/100mm). The Greek pipes just get clogged.
They don‘t call them "modern conveniences" for nothing. Toilet paper wasn't invented until the 1900s, and Greece is an ancient civilization.
The ancient Greeks were modern for their time. A Minoan king of Crete invented the first flushing toilet over 2800 years ago. Paper was first manufactured about a thousand years later, but it took someone another 700 years to have the great idea of making toilet paper.
This also helps explain a few other ancient and European pre-toilet paper traditions, such as not eating food with your left hand, the bidet, and that creepy long fingernail on the left pinky – think about it!
This is not a uniquely Greek problem, you may still encounter the NO PAPER sign in other old parts of Europe (and even in one of New York City‘s oldest hotels). You'll also encounter this throughout much of South East Asia.
The toilets will handle a small amount of paper, so don't panic if you forget once or twice while you get used to it.
The bins will be collected and emptied daily, so there's rarely an odour problem, and a tight fitting lid keeps the health issues at bay.
When you lift the lid, just don't look.
The eternal question has been answered in Greece, where spring-loaded mechanisms return the seat on some toilets to the UP position after use. Argument settled.
Sorry ladies, no "hovering", so the health-conscious can use those wipes to give the seat the once-over, and watch out for a slap from the seat as you stand up.
The same goes for the so-called "Turkish toilet" you may encounter in more remote areas. Probably better known to you as the ‘squat‘ toilet.
It's a ceramic, or enameled, apparatus that is pretty rare in Greece these days. (By the way, it appears the Greeks named it the "Turkish" toilet in retaliation for centuries of cultural domination, even though this type of toilet is still common in Asia, and can be encountered in other southern European nations from time to time).
There's a bit of an art to mastering these toilets, but practice makes perfect. Until you do, take some disinfectant wipes with you to fix any "mistakes" to you or your clothing.
Don't let it put you off or spoil your trip, put it down to being an experienced traveler.
Backtracking on this whole issue a little, and consider what you put into your body in the first place.
In Athens and Thessalonika the tap water is perfectly fine to drink. These cities are supplied by reliable and clean systems.
The same can't be said of the islands where quality and purity can vary significantly. Many still rely on groundwater (wells) and because of frequent drought there‘s often insufficient supply. Water quality can be poor, especially in summer.
It's recommended you drink only bottled water in Herakeion (Crete), Alexanroupolis, Siteia, Salamis, Ioannina, and other smaller islands.
Use caution on Milos, Kimolos, Irakleia, Schoinoussa, Symi, Halki, Patmos and Kastelorizo. These islands have had all their water literally shipped to the islands since 2008. While much care is taken with the process, transferring water to and from a ship creates several opportunities for contamination.
The Greek government is trying to secure water supply for the islands through de-salination plants, but the 2010 financial crisis has severely disrupted plans.
Because it's a mountainous country, there are many springs and natural water sources all over Greece.
Many villages have elaborate taps for these. You may see locals filling up large containers to take home for use. You may even be offered spring water in some cafes and restaurants.
Even the purest, sparklingly clean water can cause traveler's diarrhoea – all water carries microbes and bacteria of some type. These are processed by your gut and are generally harmless. But different destinations have slightly different combinations of microbes, and it can take a day or two for your gut to adjust.
Traveler's diarrhoea is not dangerous, unless it's acute (really bad), or chronic (goes on for a long time) – in which case you might need medical assistance.
The biggest problem is dehydration, and first line treatment is oral rehydration. Not only does rehydration often require more water than people think, it also requires some special electrolytes in the water they drink.
A sports drink (Gatorade, Powerade, Lucozade, etc) often works well, and several glasses of this should be drunk each day there are symptoms of traveler's diarrhoea.
If you get into a tight spot and can't find a sports drink, you can make your own with a pinch of salt and a few spoons of sugar into a glass of clean water. Even if the person has been vomiting, and appears to be throwing up all their liquids, keep drinking! At least some of the fluid is getting into the body.
Sometimes the diarrhoea can be so severe you need to get medical help. A few signs that you've reached this stage include the presence of blood in the diarrhoea, fevers and severe abdominal cramping. These are all signs that the bacteria are invading the body by penetrating the intestinal lining.
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