Why Not Have a Fund-Raising Car Wash?

By Nancy Grundahl

stormdrainsWe’ve all seen them and have maybe even helped out. It’s those by-the-side-of-the-road fund-raising car washes, usually with high school or college students having a good time on a weekend afternoon soaping up cars. But, have you ever thought about where the soapy runoff water goes? Sure, it probably runs down to a storm sewer, but what about after that? Did you say, “To a water treatment plant”? If you did, you just might be wrong. In many communities stormwater empties out directly into a stream, river or wetland. That’s right. All that dirty soapy water with residues of gasoline and motor oil may be taking a short trip through some pipes into your local environment, where it could cause damage.

What to do? In planning your event investigate what will happen to the wastewater. Walk around. Are there storm drains? If so, is anything stenciled on them, like “Don’t Dump. Flows to Stream” or “No Dumping — Drains to the River”? Some communities have stenciled their drains to let people know where the water goes.

If you can’t find storm drains or if nothing is stenciled on the ones you find, try calling your local government and, if you have one, the sewage authority for your area. Ask them where the water will go and what damage it might cause.

If the risk for polluting is high, you might want to change your plans. But, if you still want to go forward:
• Use an environmentally-friendly biodegradable soap.
• Lighten up on the amount of soap you use — water is a natural solvent.
• Use buckets and dump the dirty water down a sink drain.
• Use a hose with a shut-off nozzle (this will also conserve water)
• Wash cars on a grass, gravel or other permeable surface so the dirty water will soak into the ground instead of running off.

And, check out these resources from Maryland.

Make Your Car Wash Event Eco-Friendly from the Maryland Department of the Environment

Facts About ….Car Washing Fundraisers from Maryland Public Schools

These tips are also appropriate for those of us who wash our own cars.

So, how do you get the dirt off of your car? Are you environmentally aware when taking sponge and hose in hand?

About the author: Nancy Grundahl has worked for the Philadelphia office of EPA since the mid-80’s. Nancy believes in looking at environmental problems in a holistic, multi-media way and is a strong advocate of preventing pollution instead of dealing with it after it has been created. Nancy likes to garden and during the growing season brings flowers into the office. Nancy also writes for the EPA “It’s Our Environment” blog.