Green Jobs and Environmental Justice

Warm-up: Discussion

1.      Discuss environmental justice. (Note: your students should have a basic understanding of green jobs to participate in this discussion. Be sure they are familiar with the above definition, as well as concepts and characteristics of green jobs.)

a)      Ask students what they think environmental justice is.

b)      Introduce the concept of environmental justice: What is it? Why are different people affected by climate change and pollution differently? In what ways are some people more disadvantaged in terms of environmental conditions than others? (People’s race and socio-economic status have a lot of weight in determining the quality of resources they have access to, where they live, the support they get from the local and federal government, etc. People who cannot afford water filters, regular doctor appointments, time to exercise, or the costs of moving out of a decrepit neighborhood are at a greater risk of suffering from a degraded environment. The areas where such conditions exist are usually in low-income, urban or rural areas).

c)      Can your students think of any environmental justice issues in their community? (Visit for information about environmental justice by group/population, county, zip code, etc.)

d)      Introduce your students to Superfund and discuss: What is it? Why is it important? What are some problems people have with the Superfund? (It is a part of the EPA which puts money toward cleaning up and revitalizing polluted, neglected areas. Oftentimes Superfund sites are in low-income areas. Sometimes there is concern surrounding a site when it is designated as a Superfund site because the residents believe it will put a negative stigma on an otherwise “good” neighborhood. It also uses taxpayers’ money to clean up pollution and hazards left by others).

e)      How are environmental justice and green jobs related? (Green jobs are a pathway out of poverty. They create new jobs with improved conditions and create innovative means by which pollution can be reduced and climate change slowed by focusing resources, development, manpower and efforts in these areas).

f)       How can green jobs bring people out of poverty? (Provide more jobs and better opportunities while also cleaning up the environment, improving people’s living conditions, and thus bettering people’s health).


Activity One: Comparing Communities

1.      Before class, you should have written the following words on separate pieces of scrap paper: toxins, safety hazards, emissions (make two of these), waste/landfills, water pollution, asthma, cancer.

2.      Split your class up into two groups. One group will represent the factory workers at a soda bottling plant, and the other group will represent the everyday consumer.

3.      Present an empty soda bottle to your class and explain that it represents the plastic that comes out of factories in the United States. Such factories often employ workers in hazardous working environments while paying them minimum wage and exposing them to toxins daily.

4.      Explain the following to your class:

a.       Factory workers not only face the hazards associated with producing the plastic bottle, but are also more likely to face the health problems resulting from pollution from production of the bottles and inadequate disposal of the bottle when it is empty.

b.      Factory workers are most commonly from low-income urban or rural areas, where these factories are located, which are also the same areas where landfills filled with plastic bottles are situated. The toxins from the bottles can be released into the air and can leach out of the plastic into the ground, entering water sources which are ultimately consumed.

5.      After this explanation, hand the bottle to the factory worker group. They are starting out this activity with the bottle because they are the ones producing it and, thus, the first to posses it. Also, give “safety hazards,” “toxins,” and one of the “emissions” cards to the factory workers.

6.      Explain that these workers are exposed to safety hazards and toxins while producing this bottle. They also must breathe the polluted emissions from the factory near their homes, and also are affected by the climate change related to the greenhouse gases in these emissions.

7.      Now that the bottle has been manufactured, it is ready to be sold. Turn the bottle over to the everyday consumer group along with the other “emissions” card, as the consumer is not exempt from breathing in polluted air from the bottle’s production or the greenhouse effect of these gases in Earth’s atmosphere.

8.      Once the consumer group is done with the bottle and ready to discard, hand it back to the factory workers, along with the words “waste/landfills.” The factory workers must now bear the burden of having the waste dumped into a landfill close to their home.

9.      Since leaching of the plastic results from improper disposal (not being recycled) of the bottle, the plastic particulates enter the soil and then the groundwater, which families in these areas consume. Give the factory workers the “water pollution” card. As the ultimate result of such environmental hazards and pollution is poor health, hand the factory worker the “asthma” and “cancer” cards. They are more likely to deal with these and other health problems in themselves and their families.

10.  Students should now have a clear visual of who bears the burdens of production and disposal of plastic water bottles.


Activity Two: Re-Cap

1.      Discuss the outcome of Activity One.

a)      What did the students take away from the activity? How did this activity make them feel? Have students share words and emotions related to both sides of this activity.

a.       How did the “factory workers” feel?

b.      How did the “consumers” feel?

b)      Ask students what they think determines who bears the greatest burdens of pollution and climate change? Is this fair? Why or why not? Encourage discussion and debate about inequality and injustice.


Activity Three: Green Jobs

1.      Transition the discussion to get students thinking about how the exchanges in Activity One could be different with the introduction of green jobs.

a)      What actions could be taken to lessen the negative affects of production and disposal? (Raising production standards at factories; putting limits on emissions; providing factory workers with better health care benefits; strengthening recycling initiatives; providing assistance to degraded neighborhoods; etc. Above all, creating more green jobs which would employ those affected by environmental injustice, giving decent income to the workers and their families).

b)      What if the consumer group decided to recycle the plastic bottle? Which of the negative factors on the cards would be reduced from the equation? (Less waste/landfills, and hence less water pollution, asthma, cancer, etc.)

c)      Could the factory be “greened” by reusing recycled plastic instead of producing new plastic? How would this affect the factory workers jobs?

d)      What if there was a demand for another product besides a plastic bottle. Could the factory workers be trained to produce an alternative product? What are some alternatives to plastic? What are some health or environmental risks associated with these?

e)      What if the plastic bottling company decided to convert their factory to one which uses renewable resources to power its plant? How would this affect the workers? How would this affect the green job sector? (This change would lessen the amount of toxins, pollution and emissions that the worker and general public, are exposed to. Also, such a change could require hiring more workers or providing new job skills training because workers would be needed to carry out the change to renewable energy and to maintain the new system. These improvements would likely improve efficiency and save money for the business owners, possibly allowing them to improve conditions or increase pay.)


Extension: Writing Assignment

1.      For homework or as an additional in-class assignment, have your students research a group of people or a region where people are living in unhealthy, degraded conditions or areas that will be overtly affected by climate change and environmental injustices. If possible, focus on an issue affecting the community or region near your school (Navajo lands in Arizona; Superfund sites such as Gowanus Canal, NY; coastal cities; urban environmental degradation issues; etc. See for more ideas. )

a)      Have students include general information on environmental justice.

b)      Students should explain why people’s surroundings affect their health, and in what ways their specific group has been affected.

c)      Students should also incorporate how green jobs would help the group they research, suggesting ideas that would improve the environment, better the health of workers or local residents, provide jobs, etc.


At the conclusion of this lesson, students will understand the disparities between people of different racial and socio-economic backgrounds and how such differences among groups of people affect their environmental quality, health, and access to resources. Most importantly, students will understand that green jobs provide a pathway out of poverty.