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Read this before washing your car | Chris Carrel
Summer reminds me of one of my simplest tips for being green: Washing your car…in the right place. Unlike me, many of my fellow F-Dubbers keep their cars clean with regular car washing, and that can contribute to significant water quality pollution. (In contrast, the annual washing of my Honda minivan is always a great event in my neighborhood as neighbors mistakenly congratulate me on replacing my dusty old gray van with a shiny new green model. But I digress.)
The problem with car washing is all about location. When F-Dubbers wash their cars on the street or in a paved driveway that sends water to stormwater drains, the wash water has a direct route to travel to Hylebos Creek and other local creeks and ultimately, Puget Sound.
What does that wash water contain? The soapy water flowing off our jalopies contains a witches brew of oils, greases, rust, phenols, lyes, acids, ammonia and other micro-toxics. Research conducted in the past couple of years has demonstrated that untreated water from car washing poses a significant toxicity to aquatic life, including salmonids.
This is one of those environmental issues that is easy to look at and say, "Well my contribution to the problem isn’t that big. I’m not going to kill off the Orcas in Puget Sound by washing my car!"
That line of reasoning might have held water 40 years ago when there were only a million or so of us residing around the Puget Sound. The collective impact of 4 million-plus Puget Sounders and their car wash waste water can have a real detrimental impact to the Sound and its feeder tributaries.
The Environmental Protection Agency calculates that the collective impact of oil from untreated car washing around the United States adds up to the equivalent of 23 Exxon Valdez oil spills annually. If you wash your car in the wrong location, you’re part of those oil spills. Ouch.
As I noted earlier, the solution is so simple. All environmental impacts should be this easy to solve. The best option is to wash your car at a professional car wash facility, where waste water is directed to the sanitary sewer and treated before it reaches Puget Sound. A second best solution is to wash your car on your lawn (even a gravel strip will do), where the wash water is soaked up by the grass and underlying soils, and filtered by Ma Nature’s own treatment system.
Because of its environmental impact, car wash water is increasingly a target for government clean water efforts. The Washington Department of Ecology is increasing public education on the issue and encouraging cities to reduce auto wash waste water in their storm water. In other states, cities have considered banning residential car washing. The City of Federal Way has a program for charity car washes, so contact the city if your team or church group is setting up a car wash.
I see this issue along the lines of the plastic grocery bag debate. Government regulation and enforcement actions would be a step too far. The public pushback you’d get would negate the environmental improvements. Witness the initiative to repeal Seattle’s plastic bag tax.
With grocery bags, I’ve seen a positive effect from public awareness and efforts by grocery retailers. People’s behavior has changed because of increased awareness of the environmental impact of plastic and paper bags, and the availability of alternatives.
Car washing should be even easier. Who wants to contribute to an Exxon Valdez in Puget Sound just to get your car clean? The alternative — a local car wash facility or a lawn — is too simple to ignore. So, my challenge to my fellow Federal Wayers is to pledge to keep your car clean the right way, while keeping our streams and Puget Sound healthy.