Take care of your car and it will take care of the environment

People love their cars. But like any love affair, there are occasional bumps in the road.

Our four-wheeled friends can be sources of water pollution if they aren’t washed or maintained with an eye on keeping the environment healthy. Dirty water from washing your car in the driveway will make its way into streams and Puget Sound. And leaks or spills of motor oil and vehicle fluids are also a significant source of pollution found in local waterways.

The City of Tacoma encourages car owners to be good stewards of the environment. The City’s Environmental Services Department, in partnership with the Puget Sound Starts Here public-awareness campaign, sets a high priority on keeping streams, rivers and Puget Sound safe from polluted runoff.

When it rains, street runoff flows through ditches and storm drains into streams, rivers, lakes and wetlands that eventually empty into the Sound and other waterways where fish and other wildlife live and people swim and play.

Car owners can do their part to protect Puget Sound every time they wash and maintain their vehicles.

Keep it clean

Environmental Services offers this advice for washing your car in ways that prevent negative impacts downstream:

  • Wash your car on a lawn or on gravel to keep the suds off the streets. Allowing the wash water to soak into the ground keeps the dirt, grime and soap out of the storm drains and out of our waterways like Commencement Bay. Dirty water from washing cars carries oil, solvents, anti-freeze and heavy metals such as zinc, lead and copper. But don’t worry – carwash water won’t hurt your lawn.
  • Use soap or detergent that is phosphate-free. Phosphates can strip water of oxygen that fish need to survive.
  • Sweep driveways and street gutters before you wash your car in order to prevent dirt, leaves and trash from going down the drain.
  • Choose to use a commercial car wash. Their water for washing will be recycled or collected and treated.
  • Consider selling car wash tickets as a fund-raiser rather than holding a car wash event. The Puget Sound Car Wash Association works with many local car wash businesses to offer car wash coupons available at CharityCarWash.org.


Stop the leaks


An oil stain or drip spot under your car where you park is a call to action: Something is leaking, and it needs to be fixed.  Detecting and fixing leaks improves the reliability and safety of your car, and protects Puget Sound at the same time.  The state Department of Ecology says one-third of Washington’s water pollution comes from chemicals such as automotive oil flowing into storm drains.

Information on how to diagnose leaks and find a repair shop is available online at fixcarleaks.org. And to get you started before you click, here’s what may be leaking from your vehicle where it’s parked, based on these descriptions:

  • Brake fluid. Clear to brown, slightly yellow and slick; often appears near a wheel.
  • Engine oil. Light brown to black, very greasy and slick; shows up under the front half of the vehicle.
  • Transmission fluid. Reddish and thin, or brown and thick; middle and front of vehicle.
  • Power steering fluid. Amber, reddish or light-brown in color, and thin; it’s at the very front of the vehicle.
  • Coolant (anti-freeze). Yellow, green or pink, greasy and slimy; watch for it at the front of the vehicle near the radiator or under the engine.

In addition to stopping leaks, it’s important for do-it-yourselfers who change their vehicles motor oil to properly dispose of used oil at approved, free collection sites where it is recycled. Many automotive parts stores and gas stations accept used oil. Search online or check the phone book for locations near you. City of Tacoma and Pierce County residents can recycle used motor oil at the Household Hazardous Waste Facility at the Tacoma Landfill.

Oil cannot be dumped into streets or on the ground, down storm drains or sinks. Oil is toxic to people, wildlife and plants, and once it gets into the environment, it can often require expensive cleanups. .

We all depend on keeping Puget Sound healthy for our food, recreation and local economy. If everyone does their part to make it that way, everyone wins.




  • Regularly maintain your vehicle and be on the lookout for fluid leaks. If you spot drips coming from your vehicle, use cardboard to catch them until you can get them fixed. Be sure to dispose of drip-stained cardboard in the trash, not the recycling bin.
  • Keep an eye out for local repair shop deals as part of the Don’t Drip and Drive campaign coming up in Fall 2016. Many local shops will be offering free leak diagnosis and discounted leak repairs as part of this program.  More information will become available at fixcarleaks.org.
  • Keep dirty car-wash water out of waterways. Wash your car at a commercial car wash. At home, park your car on gravel or grass when washing it.

This article is presented under the sponsorship of the City of Tacoma and the Make a Splash program.

Using a commercial car wash to keep your car clean is also a good way to help keep pollutants out of Puget Sound.
Using a commercial car wash to keep your car clean is also a good way to help keep pollutants out of Puget Sound.