Car washes: A mixed blessing?


The Mirror

Car wash season is upon us — sunny days with laughing children, soapy sponges and enthusiastic hollers of “car wash” at busy intersections.

Car washes also offer community groups the opportunity to raise money while local folks get their cars sparkling clean for a good cause. A great thing for all involved — except the environment.

Much of the oil, soap and dirt washed off during car washes runs directly through storm drains into wetlands, streams and lakes.

Unlike sanitary sewer systems, water running through storm drains goes back into the natural water supply with little or no treatment. The chemicals in oils and soaps hurt or kill fish and animals.

People who don’t contain their wastewater at fundraising car washes are violating local, state and federal pollution laws, said Don Robinett with the Federal Way surface water management office.

Violators are unlikely to receive fines for their first offense, but they will be educated, Robinett said.

“What we do is simply a verbal correction,” he said.

Before hosting a fundraising car wash, Robinett urges folks to contact the city to discuss environmentally-friendly options. Folks can borrow a car wash kit from the city that will contain the wastewater for treatment, or they can sell tickets for environmentally-friendly commercial car washes.

Toxic waste from washing cars can also be a problem in people’s driveways, Robinett said. Water running off into the street goes through storm drains and directly into lakes and streams. It could contaminate drinking water.

For both large fundraisers and at-home car washes, soap that claims to be environmentally friendly is not a good alternative, Robinett noted.

“Even the biodegradable soaps still contain high levels of phosphorous... which has an adverse impact,” he said. “There really is no good or environmentally sensitive car wash soap. Even biodegradable soaps are toxic to fish.”

At home, Robinett encourages people to pull their car onto the lawn and wash it there. The phosphorous and nitrogen in soap is unlikely to damage a lawn.

“Your lawn loves phosphorous and nitrogen,” Robinett said. “It helps plants grow. It’s not harmful to your lawn like it is harmful to fish.”

Commercial car washes are the most environmentally friendly way to clean a car. Those businesses are required by law to ensure wastewater is recycled and treated before entering the natural waterways.

Contact Margo Horner: or (253) 925-5565.

Helping our environment:

Federal Way along with the Puget Sound Car Wash Association (PSCWA) offer environmentally-friendly alternatives for fundraising car washes.

The PSCWA offers a charity car wash program where a charity can cheaply purchase tickets for a commercial car wash and resell them at a higher price. The tickets are usually purchased for $2, printed with the charity name and sold for $6 to $8 each. To learn more, call (800) 509-WASH or visit

The city offers environmentally safe car wash kits that pump waste water into the sanitary sewer system, keeping contaminants out of local streams and lakes. There is no charge to borrow the kits. At least one week notice is needed to borrow a car wash kit. To learn more, call (253) 835-2752.

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