Jump in my (clean) car

G Magazine

We all know cars come with heavy footprints so why add to that when we wash them?

Clean car

Credit: iStockphoto

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Cleaning the car can be a dirty affair for our environment. Not only are all those petrochemical-based detergents, polishes, waxes, sprays and fresheners problematic, but so is the water used – and what becomes of it.

Car wash water can contain a cocktail of chemicals including salts, oils, lubricants, solvents, heavy metals, antifreeze products and detergents containing nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous, says Fran Sheldon, from the Australian Rivers Institute at Griffith University in QLD.

“Some of these nasties make up the car wash detergent itself, while others, such as many of the heavy metals, are washed off from car parts like the brake linings during the washing process,” she says. “If you wash your car in the street, the water and its contents run directly into the storm water system and on to the nearest creek.”

This can certainly spell trouble for our aquatic ecosystems. Extra nutrients, for example, can ignite toxic algal blooms, while detergents can disrupt the gills of fish, leaving them exposed to infection.

According to some estimates, up to 550 litres of water are used in one home wash. That’s a big drain on a precious resource. So how can you lessen these impacts?

Get water wise

Check water restrictions in your local area before you wash as, at some stages, car washing is banned altogether. Reach for a bucket, not the hose, and fill it with rainwater or even light greywater. Wash smart by working from the top down, using gravity to help clean the car’s body. Only use a hose fitted with a flow-control trigger nozzle for a quick spray, if needed.

Washing your car on streets and driveways is banned in many areas, so park on the lawn instead. As well as cleaning the car, you’re watering the grass, which will in turn filter out many compounds in the wash, preventing them reaching our waterways, Sheldon says.


When it comes to detergents, look for low-impact, biodegradable car wash solutions. Alternatively, many eco-friendly, all-purpose liquids and sprays can be used on the car – even dishwashing liquid will do the job! For more scrubbing power, mix in some planet-friendly laundry powder (one cup of dishwashing detergent and ¾ cup laundry detergent in a bucket of water works well), and why not try other homemade solutions, like a water and baking soda paste to polish hubcaps, or water and white vinegar for the windows? The neighbours might look at you funny, but you can also cut a raw potato to wipe on the windows, followed by a rub with newspaper, to get things sparkly!

There’s also the option of using no detergents or remedies at all. If the car isn’t super-dirty, a wipe down and polish with a splash of water and a microfibre mitt or cloth can do the trick (they’re great for polishing sans wax, too).

A professional clean

There are a host of travelling ‘waterless’ wash companies doing a good job of saving precious water, and many also sell their products to use at home. But it’s important to note the energy and ingredients that go into making their products. Typically they contain synthetic polymers and waxes, silicones, solvents and fragrances, as well as preservatives and stabilising agents. Many also come in aerosol spray cans, which not all councils recycle. Not ideal.

What about traditional car wash facilities? While the International Carwash Association, which represents these companies, says automated services can use less than half the water home washes do, there are the traditional detergents to consider, which you can avoid at home while being water-wise with a bucket. If you do go for a professional wash, make sure they use biodegradable products and recycle their water, and avoid the finishing touches like polishes.

Chi Clean Complete Auto Pack

Containing a microfibre auto glove and chamois, this handy set ($40) will clean your car, detergent free, on only a bucket’s worth of warm water – inside and out. After you’re done the cloths can be machine-washed, and can last upwards of 300 cycles. Be sure to follow the included instructions to avoid scatches! www.chiclean.com.au

Orange Power Carpet & Upholstery Cleaner

Don’t forget to be eco-conscious when cleaning inside, too! While a broom and dustpan can sweep up mess and a damp cloth will help freshen up, you may need a little extra power too. This Aussie-brand spray ($5.45 for 750 mL), certified by Good Environmental Choice Australia and endorsed by Planet Ark, will help keep car seats and mats stain-free. www.orangepower.com.au

Sonett All-Purpose Cleanser

Made with sugar-based surfactants and scented with zesty organic lemongrass, this biodegradable solution ($6.15 for 500 mL) works well on the car with a sponge and bucket of water. The European green cleaning company was endorsed by Greenpeace in 2005. Call 02 8765 1100 for stockists.