Bragging About Not Recycling

No recycling waterRecycling is cool, right? It’s hip to be green, right? Well, apparently that’s not always the case.

I spotted this sign at a carwash here in Toronto yesterday. This carwash (the labour-intensive handwash kind) is proud of the fact that its water is always fresh, never recycled. In 2011, it’s a striking way of bragging.

Two points worth making:

First, any business that brags about using a resource in the least frugal way possible is perhaps, just perhaps, paying too little for it. Now, from what I understand, water usage by businesses in Toronto is metered, though I don’t know just how expensive the water is for businesses. But it’s at least worth contemplating that, for a sometimes-scarce resource (and water counts as one of those, even in Canada) a business can only brag about maximal usage if it’s not paying very much for it in the first place. If we want to encourage people (and businesses) to use less water, the first step is to make sure usage is metered, and the second step is to make sure that prices are sufficient to discourage waste. Water is a public utility, and pricing is often subsidized in ways that encourages waste. Notice there are precisely zero airlines bragging about how much fuel they use.

The second thing worth noting is the basic value conflict here. Why is it that this company is bragging about using only fresh water? Presumably it’s because they or their customers associate fresh water with a better product, i.e., a better wash. Now, that belief might be mistaken. In fact, I strongly suspect it is mistaken. I suspect that recycling and filtering can easily get water clean enough to get your car 100% sparkly clean. But the perception that recycled water is inferior is out there, and it may be difficult to change. In the meantime, this remains an example of what many will experience as a difficult values-based choice: do you want the best product, or the greenest one? Sometimes, the greenest choice is also the best product, and when that’s true it’s either a happy coincidence or the result of really smart product development. But we must not allow clever marketing to convince us that that will automatically be the case, that green = ethical = happy = socially progressive. Life is full of choices, and that truth is one that we cannot afford to water down.

4 comments so far

  1. Gary Flack on

    You’re mistaken about their intent (probably because they’re mistaken that everyone understands their point). The history of second rate car washes everywhere (both automatic and manual) is that they wash your car with dirty, previously used water. That is, in order to save money on fresh water and soap they just recycle the drained-off water back into the hoses and assume you won’t notice. The message they’re trying to send is that they don’t do this.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Actually that is precisely what I took their intent to be. Perhaps there needs to be a clearer distinction between “reused” water and “recycled” water. I would expect the latter to be filtered.

  2. Wayne Norman on

    All fresh water is recycled, isn’t it? Can’t you always find dinosaur piss molecules in tap water if you have sensitive enough equipment? I presume the only reason Starbucks (and every other bar and restaurant) don’t brag about using fresh water is because we don’t fear they are just reusing what’s going down their drains. They’ll brag about filtering municipal water — in part to show they’re not using less eco-friendly bottled water. In fact, I know yoga studios that do that.

    Footnote: during the drought a couple of years ago in NC, they shut down all car washes that didn’t use recycled water. This made many of them invest in equipment to do that effectively. Of course, in non-drought situations, it’s not clear that this “privatized” and decentralized way of cleaning dirty water is more efficient than the way the city does it. If the city charged the true price, then we would know, I guess. If the city does it more cheaply, and there is no shortage (as surely there cannot be in a place like Toronto), then we might as well let them do it. No?

    • Chris MacDonald on


      I take it that the barrier to to centralized filtering/recycling of water would be recovering the water in the first place. Getting water *back* from (e.g.,) carwashes in order to filter it centrally doesn’t seem feasible.

      I wonder how all of the above changes in places where water is much more scarce. As you say, Starbucks doesn’t brag about “fresh” water because no one is worried about that. But in lots of places, I suspect there really IS a worry that restaurants etc are using cheaply-filtered / recycled water rather than more costly “clean” water. Any readers know for sure?


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