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The Detrimental Effects of Power Washing

September 14, 2009

I would love to see the end of the power-washed sidewalk. Early in the morning in Boston, you can see a number of workers hosing down sidewalks in front of businesses – everything from restaurants to design stores, to bars. They are using potable water to wash cigarette butts, plastic packaging, and any other litter down the drains and into Boston harbor. . . residue from public use of outdoor space.

Putting aside the issue of water use for a minute, I feel that this is only perpetuating the idea that it’s fine to throw your trash on the street. The next morning, you can go back to that same bar, and stand outside and smoke and the sidewalk is miraculously cleared of any of the previous night’s litter. Nobody is held responsible for their waste. But ultimately, waste has to go somewhere, and it’s going directly into the river or the ocean. 

The statistics are a big staggering: every year, several trillion cigarette butts are thrown onto sidewalks, highways, beaches, parking lots and everywhere else as a result of littering. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga released a study saying that discarded cigarette butts can leach chemicals (lead and cadmium to name two) that contaminate our water systems and kill microorganisms. So many smokers tossing one or two butts out their windows every day can (and will) have devastating effects on our water systems. And this is only some of the trash being flushed down our drains. Plastics, styrofoam Dunkin’ Donuts cups, and other waste has already been proven to have detrimental effects on the environment as most of the waste leaches chemicals and doesn’t decompose for tens, sometimes hundreds of years. 

power washing

photo via flickr


As if the problem of sweeping trash into the ocean weren’t enough, the process of power washing uses fresh, drinkable city water. Why this isn’t at least done with captured rainwater or greywater is impossible to comprehend. The good news is, some cities are starting to recognize that this is a problem. San Diego has just set regulations to make sure wastewater from power washing doesn’t reach storm drains. Pressure washers are not required to capture their wash water so that ideally, nothing but rain ends up going down those drains.

While this is a great step, I think we still need better alternatives for capturing, treating and dealing with waste water and litter. We should have proper avenues to dispose of cigarette butts, and institute higher fines for littering. If pressure washing is absolutely necessary, it should be done with recycled rainwater and captured before reaching storm drains. Every day, we gain new knowledge about the changes we are causing in our rivers, oceans, and drinking water. We should be making every effort to keep these water systems clean as they are our source of life. So next time you’re out, and you see a sytrofoam cup rolling around the street, or a friend throw a cigarette butt out their window, or a company using pressure washing to clean off their sidewalks. . . speak up. Every piece of litter that goes down the drain WILL affect our future.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Suzan Scott permalink
    September 14, 2009 11:43 pm

    Cigarettes kill so many people each year from smoking and now the butts can kill all over again as they get power washed into our water system. Never thought about cigarettes that way. Good article.

  2. September 15, 2009 11:31 am

    Water has been a “given” since man found it potable. We live in an area where it seems to be a given. Great idea to be using gray water. Excellent idea to think it should be filtered before going into the harbor. ARGH! Does change have occur with tragedy to happen?

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