Washing Your Car
Car washes can be so much fun, but they can also be a huge drain on the environment! In many American neighborhoods, soap suds, bikinis, sunshine, radio jingles, and dancing water hoses are a summertime tradition. But what we now know is that washing your car—either at home or at a commercial car wash—has significant environmental consequences. So, before you head out to make your ride sparkle, please read up here for tips to making your car wash less harsh on Mother Earth.
BENEFITS FOR THE ENVIRONMENT: Worldwide, there are more than 400 dead zones where fish and most marine life can no longer survive due to pollution.1 By washing your car responsibly, you'll help out our fish population by not polluting their homes with harsh detergents. You'll also save water!
Cost: Medium. Both commercial car washes and waterless cleaning products cost more than cleaning with a chemical-laden detergent at home.
Time and effort: Low. Switch to a commercial car wash and you'll save time and energy.
Tips for Making Your Car Washing More Eco-Friendly:
1) Don't own a car :) If you don't have one, you won't need to wash it (or pour fossil fuels into it). All a bicycle needs is a periodical wipe-down with a rag and brush (an old toothbrush will do). But since 95% of American households own a car,2 let’s focus on what car-owners CAN do!
2) Wash the car regularly. For those who don't worry much about appearances, washing the car may seem like a waste of time, money, and water. However, in the long run, it can do good for both your wallet and the planet—washing extends the life of the car's paint and defends against rust by ridding the undercarriage of salt.3
3) Take the car to the local car wash. Soaping up your car in the driveway is detrimental to the environment. Runoff from your car is loaded with gasoline, motor oil, soaps and harsh detergents. When you wash your car at home, all of that flows into storm drains that empty into rivers, streams, creeks, and wetlands, where it poisons aquatic life. In contrast, commercial car washes are required by federal law to drain their wastewater into sewers that treat the water before discharging it into the environment.4 At-home washing can also use more water. The International Carwash Association (a group that represents commercial car wash companies and has an obvious bias) reports that washing a car at home uses about 80 to 140 gallons, whereas a car wash averages less than 45 gallons of water per car.5 Commercial car washes save water by mixing air and water to create more pressure for less volume.6 Many washes also reuse and recycle their rinse water.
4) Wash responsibly at home. Some disagree with the recommendation to take your car to a commercial wash. Commercial car washes are expensive, guzzle lots of electricity, and can damage your car's paint finish. Home washing provides good exercise, fills you up with Vitamin D, and can be eco-friendly if you monitor your water use and forgo harsh detergents. No wonder almost half of all Americans prefer to wash their cars in the driveway!7 So, if you choose to wash at home:
- Save water by:
- Using a bucket or a hose with a nozzle that automatically stops the flow of water when you release the trigger.
- Use rainwater or gray water collected from your home.
- Decrease evaporation by avoiding direct sunlight and very hot weather.
- Wash over grass or dirt (not over your driveway) so that the soil absorbs and neutralizes your dirty water.
- Wipe with cotton rags, not paper towels. To ensure that all wastewater ends up where it belongs—in the sewer—wring rags into buckets and then empty those buckets in sinks or toilets, not on the ground. When you're done, sop up all sudsy puddles.
Avoid soaps with phosphates, which spur the growth of algae in water, thereby depriving marine life of oxygen and sunshine. Detergents can also harm fish by destroying the mucus layer that protects them from bacteria and pesticides and “by reducing the surface tension of water, which makes it easier for fish to absorb organic chemicals such as pesticides.”8 Choose detergents labeled non-toxic or biodegradable, but note that even biodegradable soaps can still harm life in your local stream. The only benefit of biodegradable soap is that it degrades in time.9
That's why you should consider avoiding soap and water altogether. Buy a waterless formula from an eco-friendly company like Freedom (http://freedomwaterlesscarwash.com/) or Eco Touch (http://www.ecotouch.net/). Apply the cleaner with a spray bottle and then wipe with a cloth. With this method, you won't get to attack your bikini-clad friends with a hose, but you will save our fishes from harm.
- Use vinegar and baking soda for the details. Wipe the windows with vinegar and water and they'll sparkle. Shine hubcaps and chrome bumpers with a paste of baking soda and water. To freshen floor mats, sprinkle baking soda before vacuuming.10 Avoid harsher cleaning products by tending to spills as soon as they occur.
5) For the many of you out there who look to car washes as great fundraising opportunities, organize them with care! If your event generates lots of dirty run-off, you might violate federal law.11 Wash your customers' cars just like you would your own. Clean with waterless products, use water and soaps thoughtfully, or partner with a commercial car washer. Alternatively, send a strong environmental message by offering bike cleanings instead of car washes ☺
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10 Coronato, Helen, Eco-Friendly Families, Penguin Group, NY, 2008; p. 169
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