The Grey Water Debate and Common Sense

greywaterdebateWhen I was watching TV yesterday, there was a news item about the severity of the drought in California, showing interviews with desperate people who had found that their water supply had dried up. They turned on a tap and… nothing. One couple had drawn on the same aquifer all their lives – and now, nothing.

Then we heard from a designated expert about what was being done to conserve water all over the world. She discussed how one hugely under-utilised resource was household grey water – and then made the statement that had me sitting forward in my chair. “In Australia,” she said, “they’re much more advanced with the use of grey water, using it on gardens and sometimes recycling it to washing machines.”

She was, admittedly, talking about household grey water, but naturally I thought of it in terms of what RVers do with their grey water.

RVs and “Leave No Trace”

There is an ongoing and sometimes bitter debate revolving around these terms:

  • Leave no Trace
  • Self-Containment
  • Grey water

The original LNT scheme, born overseas, was much less restrictive about what ‘leave no trace’ means, and after outlining the issues behind it, left it up to the individual to do the right thing.

Then along came the CMCA’s version of LNT. I do agree we should take care of our environment, and like many other RVers I take out my rubbish, use water carefully, and try not to pollute the environment. When I first heard of the CMCA program, I thought it sounded like a good idea, and downloaded the forms to fill out.

Then came the sticking point. Our caravan doesn’t have a permanent grey water tank, so we had bought a 40-litre wheeled tank that fits under the van, to use whenever we were free camping.

When I read through the CMCA LNT forms, I discovered that I had to give exact details of our grey water capability. Based on that, the CMCA decided how long I was permitted to stay at a campsite designated ‘Self contained vehicles only’.

Here is what they say on their website (underlining is mine), with my comments in red:

Do I qualify?
LNT accreditation is available to all owners of qualifying self-contained RVs who are a member of an RV club, including companies that hire self-contained RVs in Australia.

(So even though I want to do the right thing by joining the LNT program, I can’t do it unless I join a club or organisation????)

Applying for LNT accreditation is a simple process and free to club members; all you need is a qualifying vehicle that has the capacity to retain all waste within the confines of the vehicle, and agree to leave no trace whatsoever of your visit to a site.

“Within the confines of the vehicle” – we planned to take grey water we use out with us (otherwise we wouldn’t have bothered buying the tank) – but is a tank attached by a hose still ‘within the confines of the vehicle’? The website doesn’t state this, but others say that portable tanks are permitted.

To qualify, vehicles should carry a minimum of 20 litres of fresh water, have a grey water holding tank with a minimum capacity of five litres per person or 15 litres per person if the vehicle is fitted with a shower, and have a portable toilet cassette or black water holding tank with a minimum capacity of the smallest portable toilet cassette.

Fresh water: no problem. Portable toilet cassette: no problem. For 2 people, our 40-litre grey water tank (portable) is fine: 15 litres per person with a shower = 30 litres.

BUT… when I downloaded the forms, I found the kicker: that is 30 litres PER DAY. Using that formula, we could stay in a camp for self-contained vehicles for all of 32 hours. Move along, there, ma’am – you’re obviously a danger to the environment.


Savvy RVers who care about the environment are constantly exchanging tips on how to shower/keep clean/wash up using tiny amounts of water (even in a van containing a shower). The use of a formula like this is insane.

Finally, there’s this:

How does it work?
Participants sign a declaration to abide by an 11-point Code of Conduct whilst travelling and are identified by an LNT certificate affixed to their vehicle. A strong fleet of LNT certified vehicles will go a long way towards assisting CMCA in its endeavours to ensure that existing areas remain open and new areas are introduced for access by self-contained RVs.

The CMCA has, undoubtedly, done a lot of work towards encouraging towns to be RV Friendly, and to promote more areas for self-contained RVs. BUT – the whole definition of ‘self-contained’ needs to be addressed. If RVers are carrying portable grey water containers – whether these are ‘official’ or large containers with lids and a place for the hose – then why isn’t that good enough? 

One last word on such a program: in the end, any scheme relies on the sincerity of the people who sign up for it. A sticker does not mean that the person holding it will abide by the rules. A number of free campers have commented that they’ve seen owners of supposedly self-contained vehicles letting their grey water drain onto the ground. Which brings me to the next point:

The Grey Water Debate

Quite apart from stringent rules that don’t give campers credit for common sense, let’s look at the whole grey water debate from the perspective of a country that has, for years, had large areas of the continent suffering from drought.

We’ve lost count of the number of parks (free and paid) where the managers ask us to let our grey water hoses drain into the garden rather than into the drains. Some have a notice up in the amenities block reiterating the message.

So let’s turn this around. Instead of saying ‘thou shalt not let your grey water touch the ground’, let’s look at how we can make our grey water as safe for the environment as possible, so we can direct water where it’s needed in arid conditions.

In places where you are permitted to let grey water run on to the ground, make sure you do it responsibly, so you don’t leave the ground soggy for other RVers.

1. Food scraps and grease

Food scraps and grease mostly come from washing up. This attracts vermin and may smell, and can sometimes, when decaying, be a danger to small dogs owned by other campers. Quite a few free campers use a plastic 2 litre bottle with holes punched in it that will let the water through, while catching food scraps – but this doesn’t necessarily catch grease. Keep in mind that kitchen water (food scraps etc) is considered BLACK water, not grey water. Best practice: use kitchen paper to wipe plates free of food and grease before washing up.

2. Eco-safe detergents and cleaning products 

A little bit of research will quickly show you which ingredients to veto when you’re shopping.

Here are some useful links: 

Detergent Guide (notice which ones get a GreySmart tick from Choice)

Shannon Lush’s Eco-friendly cleaning kit:

Guide to Grey Water-compatible Cleaning products:

(Note that on this page they reiterate that water from the kitchen sink is considered to be ‘black water’.)

Please feel free to add other good products/resources/ideas in the comments section below, which will later be added to an Eco-Friendly page on this site.


The Grey Water Debate and Common Sense — 10 Comments

  1. I don’t know how they get their figures! Some people must be very extravagant with water. We would use less than half what they say.

  2. CMCA have fought hard to keep rest areas open for all RVers but this code is often the only way some councils n nparks will let us stay because others have done the wrong thing. If you wish to lobby governments n councils feel free to fo so but its a long hard slog, without a group behind you,

    • I’m well aware of the work that the CMCA have done, Lynn – I acknowledge that. However, I still do not agree with the one-size-fits-all attitude towards the disposal of grey water – and when I hear of people being made to leave because of perfectly good solutions to the containment of grey water not fitting a code, I do get annoyed. (e.g. being asked to move on because grey water is contained in large buckets with lids, ready to be taken away, rather than a commercially made grey water tank.) Where’s the common sense in this?

      I do, however, take your point – sometimes you just feel you will never win with local councils and their conditions.

  3. Very interesting Marg, thanks for this. We rang Tassie Tourism AND Tassie Nat Parks recently to gain an understanding of self containment for when we go there later this year. They were not able to give us any concise “definition” of self containment, apart from having own shower/toilet and cooking and sleeping within the confines of the caravan. VERY “GREY”!

    • A grey answer indeed, Lorraine! LOL. Perhaps someone who’s been to Tassie might want to chime in? (And when you come back, you can tell us whether you found out anything more definite…)

  4. We have been travelling for over 4 years now and some of the incidents of cassettes being dumped in rest areas. CMCA RV’s that pull out of rest areas and open there grey water/ black water tanks down the roads. The one that really stands out opened his beside a dam and the water ran into the dam. Having an external grey water tank/ bucket ect is better to take to a dump point rather than rehitching to go to a dump point. After reading some of the comments it looks like there is some sort of class distinction happening between travellers. Why

    • I don’t know that it’s class distinction, Ann. I don’t know what you’d call it, exactly, but I see no reason why any container that can be sealed and taken to a dump point (or an appropriate disposal point) would not serve the purpose.

      Some people driving/towing any kind of RV – from half million dollar motorhomes to small camper trailers – will do the wrong thing, no matter what anyone says. I think all that most of us can do is be aware of what chemicals and waste can do to the environment, and be careful that we don’t contribute to any problems.

      As for those who don’t do the right thing: we can hope that they eventually get caught, shamed and made to pay.

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