Enciby Enci

“Car Wash – How Sustainable Can You Be?”

I haven’t been to a car wash in years and I haven’t washed “my car” on my front lawn in a very long time. I have been washing my bike on our front lawn though and it made me think: How good is it for the environment to wash my bike on the lawn? Is it any better than washing a car on the lawn?

Then I came across a column in the Sierra Magazine that I found interesting but I found myself questioning the sustainability commitment of the writer.

  • The question is, is it more sustainable to wash a car at home or at a car wash? I feel that there are many answers to this question.
  • Does one live in a house or an apartment?
  • Does one have a yard available that is sustainable? What is a sustainable yard?
  • How often does the car need washing?
  • How dirty is the car and does it need to get washed with soap or strong chemicals?
  • What is being washed off the car? (Grease, tar, oil…)

So the sustainability of washing an automobile on a lawn depends on the several factors.

  • If one lives in an apartment or at a house that does not have an area for washing, one that allows the “gray water” to run off into the dirt/lawn/yard, a car that is simply dusty, then I believe that it’s most sustainable to grab a bucket of water with an old rag and wash the car via hand at home. When the washing is done, do a quick hose-off and dry with a clean rag. I would recommend that all car-washing is done when the weather is cooler and the sun is not so hot as to make the water evaporate on the car, otherwise the car will have water streaks and stains. Better yet! Even better than a bucket and rag is to use one of the biodegradable “no-water” car washing products that allows for low impact car wash maintenance without the resulting run-off and water waste.
  • If one lives in an apartment or at a house that does have an area where the water could run off into the dirt/lawn/yard, then one should try to place the car in a position on the lawn or next to the yard, so that the water would run off through the soil. The car should be washed without soap or chemicals, to avoid polluting the soil. With chemicals the soil could burn or turn sour, which would make it non-fertile for plants. If the car is really grimy, then it is recommended to was it with castile soap, which is not harmful to plants nor animals. When water runs through the dirt, it’s being “cleaned” by the different layers of the soil before it reaches the water channels, which then end up in our lakes, rivers and the ocean. While the water is traveling through the soil, it is also watering plants and trees. If a car is cleaned on the street, the runoff has no use and water is just wasted. It will go directly into the ocean via channels, without it being filtered and cleaned, without watering the plants and trees, without any benefit to the planet. It carries pollutants straight to the ocean. Sometime soon, you will be swimming in the same water that was left over after you washed your car.
  • If one has a sustainable front yard, which grows plants and vegetables instead of grass, the car should only be washed with clean water and a rag, using the water run-off into the yard to water the plants. No soaps or any chemicals should be used at any time during the wash! If the yard has a cobble stone edge, consider creating a mini bioswale that allows water runoff to collect and then filter through dirt, sand, gravel and into the water table. This will filter out oil or grease and allow for clean water reclamation. Remember, the pollutants from the car that wash off onto the ground will end up on your dining room table if you allow dirty runoff into your garden.
  • If one has a car that gets dirty from hauling stuff, from driving in the dirt, or from other heavy activities, it’s best to take the car to a professional car wash and if possible, to a car wash that uses minimum chemicals but a strong pressure hose. Look for Green Car Wash, one that uses less water, biodegradable detergents, and adheres to EPA standards for water reclamation.

Wherever you end up washing your car, remember these few simple tips:

  • Ask friends and family about where the best car wash is in your area that is sustainable, that uses less water and adheres to EPA rules.
  • Keep in mind that less water and less chemical is the best way to wash a car, no matter where the car washing takes place.
  • A bucket with hot water and a simple rag will do the trick on most dirty cars, without using chemicals or much water at all.
  • You can buy waterless car wash products that are sustainable. Look at the ingredients of the product, to confirm it’s sustainability!
  • Don’t let the water run-off into the ocean if there is dirt or soil to wash the car on.
  • Wash the car during a time of day when it’s cooler.
  • Wash the car when the dirt is fresh, so it’s easier to get it clean.
  • Use an old t-shirt or towel for washing and drying, no need to buy sponges and specialty cloths.
  • Don’t wash the car if it’s going to rain. Let nature take it’s course and do a quick rinse after the rain and a quick dry-off. (I know, it never rains in Southern California!)
  • Balance the little things with big policy shifts and advocate for Green Streets that employ water reclamations standards so that water runoff gets filtered in green space bioswales before heading to the ocean.

Enjoy September and remember that as entertainment professionals, the world is watching your every move, so be the best example that you can be to your neighbors and friends.


Enci is a working actress and also a writer/director at her company Rebel Without A Car Productions.

Enci is the publisher of the theatre site Bitter Lemons, the Co-Founder of the Bike Writers Collective, she’s on the board of Bikeside, on the Cyclists/LAPD Task Force, on the SAG Conservatory Committee, and she works with government entities to make Los Angeles more bike-friendly and bike-conscious.

Contact Enci with article suggestions or find her on Twitter, Facebook and other networking sites to connect. When contacting her, please introduce yourself and tell her you read her column in the Networker.

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