Federal Way auto shop leads the way in ‘going green’

Sparks Car Care has made recycling, reusing and reducing hazardous and other waste part of everyday activities. The trend is becoming more popular in the Northwest automotive industry. - Jacinda Howard/The Mirror
Sparks Car Care has made recycling, reusing and reducing hazardous and other waste part of everyday activities. The trend is becoming more popular in the Northwest automotive industry.
— image credit: Jacinda Howard/The Mirror

Federal Way’s Sparks Car Care is setting an example for how the auto industry can be Earth friendly.

Sparks, located at 32627 Pacific Highway S., is part of the EnviroStars Program. The program began in 1995 in King County and has since spread to five other counties. It provides assistance and incentives for small businesses to properly handle, dispose of and reduce hazardous materials and waste. The program also offers a rating system consumers can use to identify businesses that are proactive in preventing pollution and incorporating environmentally-sustainable practices. The higher the star rating, the more Earth friendly the business.

“We look at how well they have their commitment to environmental practices built into their systems,” said Laurel Tomchick, EnviroStars program manager for King County.

Sparks is top-rated, earning five out of five stars.

“I like to say we were going green before it was fashionable,” owner Merle Pfeifer said.

The effort Sparks makes to ensure its practices don’t harm the environment are not immediately noticeable. On the surface, the auto shop looks and sounds much like any other shop. There’s heavy rubber matting, a concrete floor, dirt, oil and sounds of machinery.

But spend some time in the shop, talk to Pfiefer and it quickly becomes clear that this is no ordinary auto repair joint. Sparks Car Care opened in the late 1980s. Pfeifer, who grew up in the Northwest, and staff have taken a green approach to business since the start.

“It becomes part of your policies; it’s part of your work environment,” Pfeifer said.

Efforts include both simple and complex, cheap and expensive, approaches to preventing waste and embracing environmentally-friendly practices. The shop has recycling bins in every room. Used antifreeze, Freon and tires are recycled in an environmentally-safe process. Fluorescent light bulbs are a thing of the past. Chlorinated chemicals are not used. Old parts are cleaned in an environmentally safe parts machine. The shop’s sign is digital; it’s top portion automatically turns off in daylight hours when additional lighting is not needed.

Even dirtied motor oil is put to good use. The oil, which would otherwise be hauled off and discarded, is used to heat the shop. It is collected and burned in an oil heater designed to handle heavy oil, Pfiefer said.

These and more practices are carried out by all staff members. Part of the hiring process includes making sure new employees are willing to uphold the standards, Pfiefer said. After a while, reusing, reducing and recycling become part of everyday shop life, he said.

“We’re not even conscious of it anymore,” Pfeifer said. “It’s something we just do.”

Pfeifer acknowledges going green can cost money. Sparks’ oil heater cost upward of $4,000. But not all efforts are expensive, some cost little and others actually save money. Pfeifer estimates he saves $100 on lighting and $70 on garbage.

“There are hidden costs to recycle properly, but in the overall big picture, I’ve saved money,” he said. “It balances out over a period of time.”

Sparks is not the only automotive business that has learned the perks of going green.

EnviroStars began with the automotive industry, Tomchick said. The industry, as a whole, has continually become greener in the 15 years since the program began, she said.

Where it didn’t use to be the norm to see an auto business concerned with how its practices affect the environment, many auto shops now take notice, Tomchick said.

“The expectations for that industry have shifted over the last 15 years,” she said.

And regardless of savings or warm feelings that may come from preserving resources, going green can be good for business. When price and service are relatively equal, environmental certifications can offer a competitive edge. In an EnviroStars survey, 76 to 80 percent of people said they desire to do business with establishments that conduct themselves in an environmentally-responsible way, Tomchick said.

“There is a good segment of the population that absolutely makes choices that way,” she said. “It will be the thing that tips them over to a business — to have an environmental certification”

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