Greening the Car Wash

Cars Pollute—Even When They’re Being Cleaned

06-01-2004 // Heidi Ridgley

There’s no way around it: Cars pollute—even when they’re being cleaned. Contaminants typically caught up in the wash rinse include oil, engine and brake residue (which may consist of antifreeze, grease, copper and asbestos) and paint (which may contain heavy metals such as lead, zinc and rust). But you can minimize the effects of pollutants—and save water—by following these simple tips:

  • Wash your car in grassy area rather than pavement, recommends the Maryland Department of the Environment (DOE). Doing so allows the runoff to be filtered before it hits rivers, lakes and streams. It also helps to replenish groundwater supplies.

  • Conserve water by opting for a bucket rather than a garden hose. Or, says DOE, if you do pick the latter, equip the hose with an automatic shut-off nozzle, which can save as much as 70 gallons a wash. (A hose without a nozzle spews an average of 6 to 10 gallons of water a minute.)

  • Use soaps that are biodegradable and nontoxic. Never use cleaning agents labeled "poison," "harmful" or "danger," as they may contain phosphates, chlorine and other non-biodegradable ingredients harmful to marine life.

  • Seek out newer commercial facilities that clean and recycle water in do-it-yourself car wash bays if you live in an area where you can only wash your car on pavement. These systems use much less water than the old standards. But even car washes that don’t recycle the water at least must—under Clean Water Act requirements—treat it before it’s released into the sewer.
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