Whether you drive a shiny new hybrid or a dependable old clunker, you can reduce the environmental impact of your car by doing one simple thing: Quit washing it in your driveway! Between the gallons of water you use to soap up your sponges and the freshwater flowing unrestricted from your garden hose, cleaning your car can take between 80 and 140 gallons for every wash. And that water picks up a nasty load of everything that had been stuck to your car—gasoline, oil, heavy metal particles, tar, and particulate matter from exhaust fumes—and sends it down your driveway directly to the nearest lake or river, totally untreated, as many storm drains don't lead to a sewage treatment plant.
But giving up washing in the driveway doesn't mean you'll have to just live with a dirty car. After all, excess dirt can scratch your car's finish, which can lead to rust problems if you live in a northern city that salts its the roads in winter. So here are three simple, green ways to wash your car without wasting any water (or wildlife).
#1: Get off the pavement.
If you change nothing else in your car-care routine, park your vehicle on a flat, permeable surface (lawn, gravel, or dirt) rather than on pavement. Natural microbes in grass, soil, and dirt work as natural filters, breaking down some of the nasty compounds in your wash water and preventing them from running off into the nearest storm drain.
#2: Do it yourself.
For those who really relish the hands-on experience of shining up their "babies," head to a self-service car wash where the runoff water is captured and sent to a water-treatment plant. This is often the greenest—and least expensive—option, using about 15 gallons of water. Plus, you can use your own biodegradable dish soap. Those larger commercial drive-through systems use more water than self-service, about 35 to 50 gallons, depending on the type, but that's still much less than if you washed it at home. Just be sure to pass up the extra treatments and waxes (which are unlikely to offer eco-options) and stick with a plain-Jane wash.
#3: Go waterless!
While buckets, oversized sponges, a long hose, and soaked clothing are part of DIY car wash tradition, you really don't need any of those things to give your car, truck, motorcycle, boat, or plane—don't laugh, I've washed more small planes than I have cars over the years—a clean, green shine. There are a number of premade, ecofriendly "waterless car wash" products available (one the Rodale.com crew has tested and likes is EcoTouch). Or you can just grab your spray bottle of home-brewed window or Almost Everything cleaner and at least two soft, absorbent, clean rags or microfiber cleaning cloths (more if your car is really grubby). Read the directions if you're using a commercial product. But if using homemade cleaners, mist a small area with the spray-on cleaner, wipe the product and dirt off that area with the first cloth, and then buff the area with the second dry cloth. Replace the cloths as needed.