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Oh, The Places You'll Go: Toilet Signs Try To Help

Experts agree that the image on the left urges toilet users to flush toilet paper in the bowl rather than toss it in a trash can. As for the image on the right, it appears to offer a double warning: Don't stand on the seat, don't relieve yourself in the upper tank.

The world is in a transitional toilet state.

Bathroom innovators are working on ways to make toilets cleaner, safer and better for the environment. In the meantime, there are many types of toilets in the world — and all those options can be confusing.

There's the Western-style toilet — the white porcelain throne with a built-in flusher. In some parts of the world, people might use a squat toilet, which usually involves planting your feet on either side and hovering over a toilet bowl that's set in to the ground. Or a toilet could just be a hole in the ground.

According to the World Health Organization, 2.3 billion people "still do not have basic sanitation facilities such as toilets or latrines."

The U.N. is calling for "adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all" by the year 2030.

As progress is made, there will be a need for toilet education. Indeed, there's an abundance of toilet signage.

The images may seem unusual to some — um, why is that guy standing on the toilet lid to do his business? But the signs perform an important function, says Hope Randall, a communications officer at PATH, a nonprofit focused on global health, including water and sanitation.

Signs can help communicate healthy and safe hygiene practices — especially to those who may not have had much experience using certain kinds of toilets, she says.

And what better day to share them than World Toilet Day — Nov. 19? Jack Sim, a Singapore entrepreneur and head of the World Toilet Organization, created the commemorative day in 2001. In 2013, it was declared an official U.N. day. The aim is to raise awareness about the need for more toilets.

Some of the signs in this post came from our readers, eager to share what they've seen on their toilet expeditions. Others are from Instagram. And some are from Doug Lansky, author of Signspotting, a series of books on funny warning and advice signs.

The topic of toilets is especially popular.

The signs that encourage sitting instead of squatting, however, may not be sending the best message.

Research has indicated that our intestines may function better in a squatting position, both Lansky and Randall point out.

"Plus, it's more hygienic to squat," Lansky says. "Squatters think it's gross that we put our butts on the same seat that other people put their butts on."

Goats and Soda reader Lawrence Duffee captured this photo at the Episcopal Church South Sudan Guest House in Yei, South Sudan, in September 2012. He has been working as a humanitarian aid worker in the country since 2010.

In an email to NPR, Duffee explained that many people in South Sudan practice open defecation or use pit latrines. "Being in a country where most people practiced open defecation or, at best, used pit latrines, I imagine being confronted for the first time with what you term a 'vaulted toilet' likely caused confusion leading to some unfortunate results," he wrote to NPR.

And then there are the unmistakable images that highlight the importance of toilets in the first place.

Melody Schreiber (@m_scribe on Twitter) is a freelance journalist in Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit

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