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WAL-MART-Cheap Prices, Expensive To The Environment!

Dear EarthTalk: What environmental impacts should our community expect if we allow Wal-Mart to open up a store nearby? — Sara Jones, Davenport, IA

With more than 6,000 stores spread out across the globe—Wal-Mart is the world’s biggest retailer, hands down, and also a magnet for criticism for its low wages, inadequate health coverage and effect on struggling downtowns. Wal-Mart has also had its share of environmental problems.

Environmentalists complain that the company’s stores—often on the outskirts of rural communities—eat up open space, replacing farms and forests with concrete and pavement. And the company has been fined repeatedly in recent years by various agencies for environmental negligence. For example, in 2005, Wal-Mart paid $1.15 million in fines to the state of Connecticut for the improper storage of pesticides and other toxins that polluted streams near its stores there, according to the website

A year earlier, Florida fined the company $765,000 for violating petroleum storage tank laws at its auto service centers. The company admits that it failed to register its fuel tanks and to install devices that prevent overflow, and that it did not perform monthly monitoring, and that it blocked state inspections. That same year, Georgia fined Wal-Mart $150,000 for contaminating water outside of Atlanta.

And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency penalized the company $3 million in 2004 for violating the Clean Water Act in nine states. The company was also forced to change its building practices so as to prevent future water contamination. This came on the heels of a $1 million fine for Clean Water Act violations at 17 locations in four other states. Wal-Mart also agreed to establish a $4.5 million environmental management plan to improve its compliance with environmental laws at construction sites.

Wal-Mart says that change is afoot within the company. CEO Lee Scott has said that sustainability in all its forms is a key concern moving forward. “As one of the largest companies in the world, with an expanding global presence, environmental problems are our problems,” Scott told company employees last October.

Scott’s green vision includes powering facilities and fleet with renewable energy, cutting back on waste, and selling green products. Wal-Mart reportedly crafted their greening plan with the help of former Vice President Al Gore. Commitments include reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent at existing locations, and investing $500 million in environmental improvements each year moving forward.

Wal-Mart is also reportedly ramping up plans to offer organic produce and using local farms to save transportation costs. According to Ron McCormick, an executive in the company’s produce division, Wal-Mart is already buying a wide variety of produce based on what’s available in each region, instead of shipping produce across the country. “Our whole focus is: How can we reduce food-miles?” he says.

The green attitude also extends to other products, with the company increasing offerings of sustainably harvested fish and organic cotton clothing and bedding. Critics say Wal-Mart is so focused on profit that such efforts will never stick. Only time will tell if Scott’s vision for a greener Wal-Mart becomes reality.

CONTACTS: Wal-Mart,;,



Dear EarthTalk: What is the most environmentally friendly way I can wash my car: doing it myself or going to the local car wash? — Jim, Denton, TX

Few people realize that washing our cars in our driveways is one of the most environmentally un-friendly chores we can do around the house. Unlike household waste water that enters sewers or septic systems and undergoes treatment before it is discharged into the environment, what runs off from your car goes right into storm drains — and eventually into rivers, streams, creeks and wetlands where it poisons aquatic life and wreaks other ecosystem havoc. After all, that water is loaded with a witch’s brew of gasoline, oil and residues from exhaust fumes — as well as the harsh detergents being used for the washing itself.

On the other hand, federal laws in both the U.S. and Canada require commercial carwash facilities to drain their wastewater into sewer systems, so it gets treated before it is discharged back into the great outdoors. And commercial car washes use computer controlled systems and high-pressure nozzles and pumps that minimize water usage. Many also recycle and re-use the rinse water.

The International Carwash Association, an industry group representing commercial car wash companies, reports that automatic car washes use less than half the water of even the most careful home car washer. According to one report, washing a car at home typically uses between 80 and 140 gallons of water, while a commercial car wash averages less than 45 gallons per car.

If you must wash your car at home, choose a biodegradable soap specifically formulated for automotive parts, such as Simple Green’s Car Wash or Gliptone’s Wash ‘n Glow. Or you can make your own biodegradable car wash by mixing one cup of liquid dishwashing detergent and 3/4 cup of powdered laundry detergent (each should be chlorine- and phosphate-free and non-petroleum-based) with three gallons of water. This concentrate can then be used sparingly with water over exterior car surfaces.

Even when using green-friendly cleaners, it is better to avoid the driveway and instead wash your car on your lawn or over dirt so that the toxic waste water can be absorbed and neutralized in soil instead of flowing directly into storm drains or open water bodies. Also, try to sop up or disperse those sudsy puddles that remain after you’re done. They contain toxic residues and can tempt thirsty animals.

One way to avoid such problems altogether is to wash your car using any number of waterless formulas available, which are especially handy for spot cleaning and are applied via spray bottle and then wiped off with a cloth. Freedom Waterless Car Wash is a leading product in this growing field.

One last caution: Kids and parents planning a fundraising car wash event should know that they might be violating clean water laws if run-off is not contained and disposed of properly. Washington’s Puget Sound Carwash Association, for one, allows fund-raisers to sell tickets redeemable at local car washes, enabling the organizations to still make money while keeping dry and keeping local waterways clean.

CONTACTS: International Carwash Association,; Simple Green,; Freedom Waterless Car Wash,; Puget Sound Carwash Association,


GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at:, or e-mail: Read past columns at: / Issue 64 - September 9342
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