Wash Those Cars and Keep Creation Clean, Too

[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly church activities, Cultivating Community, published on Thursdays.]

Lots of suds are good for the car but not for creation. (cc image courtesy bark via flickr)

Summertime is on the horizon, and summertime brings with it that popular Saturday-afternoon, best-chore-to-do-when-it’s-hot, favorite-church-youth-group-fundraiser activity: the car wash.

Contrary to what you might think, having your car cleaned at a commercial car wash can be better for the environment than doing the job yourself. This is because professional car washes are required by law to dispose of soapy run-off water responsibly and reduce water use—some even recycle used water or have gone “waterless.” At home, the chemicals from car wash fluids can easily poison the soil and water they run into, and homeowners often use much more water than is necessary for the job.

But car washes are still fun, community-building ways for churches to serve their neighbors and raise money for ministry. And that’s a good thing. But here’s how it can be even better, both for the creation and for the very neighbors whose cars you’ll make squeaky clean:

Set Up
Put creation-friendly car washes in the category of green things you can do with a giant church parking lot. If your neighbors are looking to get their cars washed for a good price and a good cause, you can offer them both with the space you have. Here’s how:

  • First, make sure that even holding a car wash event in your area is legal, or what the restrictions on it might be. More and more municipalities are cracking down on residential car washing because of the pollution it can produce.
  • You may be using your church’s asphalt field for a good cause, but diverting car wash run-off into grassy or landscaped areas will help filter toxins before the water reaches a waterway. Use hay bales or sand bags to divert the water to these areas, and block nearby stormwater drains to prevent soapy water from going down them, instead.
  • Eco-friendly cleaners: Common car cleaners contain toxic chemicals. For your creation-friendly car wash, you’ll want non-toxic, biodegradable, phosphate-free cleaning solutions that won’t damage ecosystems if they run into stormwater drains or seep into the groundwater. Ecover, Simple Green, and Eco Touch are three brands that provide green car washing solutions.
  • Buckets and a low-flow hose nozzle: You’ll be able to reduce water waste by rinsing vehicles with water sponged out of a bucket, or by attaching a low-flow nozzle to a hose, if you must use a hose. Such a nozzle should be available at your local hardware store.
  • Towels: Reuse cotton-only rags and towels for drying off vehicles.

Shout Out
Let potential car wash customers know that this spring cleaning is a special one.

  • Advertisements: Whether it’s in an ad in the local paper or a banner on your church’s website, remember to explain that this car wash is a creation-friendly one. That fact alone may draw a whole new crowd of customers to your door—a crowd that values not only a clean car but a clean environment, too.
  • Education: Hand out informational to car wash customers. These flyers will serve to educate folks about why your church has chosen to take this route. You might include information about the impact of ordinary car wash habits on creation (Oil, phosphorous, ammonia, surfactants and solid wastes are all typical pollutants that run into local bodies of water from residential car washing; Washing a car at home can use 80-140 gallons of water; The phosphorous and nitrogen in car wash run-off can lead to excessive aquatic plant life growth and decay that decreases water quality). Encourage folks to take similar creation care steps in their own residential car washing, and provide them with some of the suggestions given here.

Clean Up
When it comes to buffing those vehicles clean, how you do it is just as important as what products you use.

  • Use water sparingly: Take water from a bucket to wet the vehicle to remove any first-layer grit or pollen before sudsing it up. Plan your car wash for the cooler times of the day, when water evaporates less quickly and you won’t have to use more water than you need. And, as fun as they are, avoid those water-spraying and sponge-throwing fights!
  • If you are using a cleaning solution that needs diluting, dilute it accurately according to the directions on the package. Don’t use more of the solution than necessary, as any extra will aggravate the ecosystems it will eventually flow into. Also, be sure to pour the solution into a bucket and use the soapy water, rather than squeezing it onto the sponge each time you go to clean a car.
  • Hand wash the car from the roof down in sections. After sudsing up each section, give it a quick spray with the hose or a swipe with the sponge and dry it with clean, cotton rags or towels. Then move onto the next section. This way you won’t have to spray the entire car at once and risk wasting water on clean spots while you hose down the dirty ones.
  • Have buckets available to wring out towels and sponges into. At the end of the day, these buckets, reserved for dirty water, should be poured into the public sewer system (through sink drains or toilets), not into storm drains. This way the water will go through a cleansing process, and not drain directly into fragile ecosystems.

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