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Car wash industry has become wild west

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It’s a sight becoming increasingly common in car parks, disused forecourts and waste land all over the UK. It is the sight an industry of taking a huge step backwards. The car wash business has become the wild west of the automotive support business, attracting the unscrupulous in search of a quick buck at the cost of irreversible damage to the planet and to the future of the many legitimate car wash operators.

It is estimated that there are around 10,000-20,000 hand car washes in the UK, offering £5 washes to a motoring public unaware of the true cost to the environment and the lives of the workers who deliver the services. Many of these operations are draining waste water directly into rain water drains, releasing gallons of untreated effluent into public waterways.

Concern about the environmental impact of these car washes and for the protection of exploited immigrant workers has prompted the Government to set up a special inquiry to examine how hand car washes compares to automatic ones. It will examine how they are regulated and what steps the Government might take to ensure hand car washes are operated sustainably.

A recent BBC article shows increasing pressure on the Government to take action over these unregulated car washes.

On the environmental side, the focus will be on examining how the industry is regulated in comparison with automatic car washes and whether providers could be using water more sustainably and doing more to prevent waste water, as well as dirt, oil and other contaminants, polluting rivers, streams and ground water.

Although the focus of the Committee’s inquiry will be on environmental issues, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commission (IASC) has produced a list of indications of exploitation at hand car washes where foreign workers are effectively slaves.

Mary Creagh, who chairs the Environmental Audit Committee, said the anti-slavery commissioner had expressed concerns about conditions in the industry, amid reports of workers being housed eight to a room and not being paid the minimum wage.

Thousands of workers in Britain’s car washes are believed to be slaves – primarily men lured from Eastern Europe then trapped in debt bondage, forced to work in unsafe conditions, stripped of documents and subjected to threats, abuse and violence.

The recent death of a Romanian man in east London has highlighted concerns about how the industry operated.

Sandu Laurentiu was electrocuted while taking a shower in what police said were “dilapidated, cramped, rat-infested” living quarters beside the car wash where he worked in Bethnal Green.

The owner of the company was jailed for four years after pleading guilty to manslaughter by gross negligence.

Ms Creagh said she wanted to know whether companies were complying with rules requiring Environment Agency permits, how they were disposing of chemicals and if there were alternatives to highly intensive agents.

An investigation by the Car Wash Advisory Service, in Nottingham in 2014, found most operators did not have planning permission, did not pay business rates and did not have permission to dispose of effluents through the sewers.

On the other side of the fence, legitimate automated car wash operators are playing their part in water conservation whilst at the same time reducing costs and improving their brand reputation. Water treatment technologies now offer solutions at all stages of the car wash process from treating the water at its source, reclaiming water for re-use and for the final disposal into the public drainage system,

In the context of water usage, automated car washes are pretty efficient using around 120 litres per wash compared with a home hand wash which can easily drain 480 litres at a time. The usual source of water is the mains supply, although some facilities are supplementing this with rainwater harvesting from the roof of the car wash and forecourt buildings. Depending on the quality of fresh water, some form of treatment will be required to remove impurities and soften the water. This is certainly the case for the final rinse where a spot free finish is desirable.

According to Jon West, managing director of Kirton Water Treatment Services, the main water use issue, however, does not lie at the water source but with what happens to the water after use.

A good reclaim system will recycle up to 90 per cent of all water used through a three-stage process. Firstly, the water is collected in a sludge interceptor which separates the large contaminants by allowing them to settle at the bottom of the tank. Next the water is passed through a cyclonic filter and finally through activated granular carbon vessel to remove any remain organics and chemicals. The recycled water can be further treated with dosed with an organic biocide or an oxidising agent. A final treatment of by reverse osmosis is required if a spot free rinse is offered.

Kirton has been providing water reclaim systems for many car wash operators and equipment suppliers for more than 40 years and has witnessed a sharp decline in the number of automated car washes, forced out of business by their unethical rivals.

“The cost of protecting the environment is falling on the shoulders of the few, whilst the many continue to damage legitimate business, the environment and the human rights of thousands of workers, “said West.


Kirton Water Treatment Services.


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