The waste that schools produce has become more and more apparent in this day and age. We teach children to love and care for the Earth – after all, it will be our home until we die. Yet in the place children spend over 1,000 hours each year – school – they are taught quite the opposite.

For years we have ignored how much trash schools produce. My middle school didn’t have hand dryers like my current high school does. Every day, the trash cans would be filled with paper towels that would go straight into the garbage. The school could produce so much less trash if they’d only used hand dryers.

The high school that I attend doesn’t use paper towels in any of the bathrooms, and there is so much less trash. If Portland Public Schools could implement a “no hand towels” rule in all their schools, or require reusable lunch trays, schools could produce so much less waste.

Speaking of lunch trays, the cafeteria isn’t much better, either. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation has found that the average school-age American child produces 67 pounds of school lunch trash from packaging every year. To add to that, almost 80 percent of all the waste generated by schools could be recycled or composted, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. It seems that the best solution is to cut out all, or most, packaged foods in schools, leaving less trash and healthier children. Packaged lunches aren’t the healthiest, anyway.

Though this might not be an option for the public school budget, it is, however, easy to make the simple switch from disposable lunch trays to washable. This would dramatically decrease the amount of trash schools produce, and encourage students to recycle and compost their waste as well, as opposed to throwing the entire tray in the trash. The students would have to put their food waste in a compost bin, and their emptied milk containers in the recycling bin.

There are compostable and recyclable food trays, but they are more expensive. If the schools are already using them, the students probably have no idea and are throwing them in the trash anyway. Washable trays, although they sound great to some, pose their own issues, with schools needing to have dishwashers installed. Schools would also have to pay a higher up-front cost.

But this is just a tiny commitment to reducing waste. A school in Concord, Massachusetts, used reusable trays and utensils and found out that their overall school waste went down by 50 percent. Not only that, but the dishwasher, reusable trays, utensils, carts and bins only cost $7,000. Ten months of biodegradable lunch trays would’ve cost $10,600, a study by the state’s Green Team found out. Reusable trays would have a higher upfront cost, but the same ones can be used for years, so it will be worth it in the long run.

Then there’s paper. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 35 percent to 45 percent of the trash in solid waste streams comes from schools and other institutions, and over a third of that is paper. Schools using less paper is like asking a candy store to stop selling candy: It doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen any time soon.

Schools should, and could, however, strive to teach their students the importance of recycling their paper instead of throwing it out. When schools teach their students why they want to recycle, not just how, there could be great benefits. If one or two schools started to produce less waste, other schools might see the benefits of producing less waste and start doing it themselves.

Although the waste in landfills isn’t going to disappear overnight because schools are producing less waste, the amount of trash going into them would be significantly less. Just by making a small change of using reusable lunch trays, or not using paper towels, students in those schools would understand the importance of reducing the amount of trash they create and schools would be more sustainable.

Creating sustainable schools is imperative to creating a healthy environment for children to grow and thrive in. Reducing school waste is the first step to get there. Let schools make the step in the right direction.