So you’ve just stained that beautiful cashmere sweater made from free-range alpacas, and the only way that you can clean said garment is by dry cleaning. But wait, being eco-chic is not just about the clothes you wear, but how you wash them afterwards. Around 85% of dry cleaners in the US use the chemical perchloroethylene [Source: Treehugger], otherwise known as perc, in order to get out those pesky stains. The problem with PERC is that it is a hazardous chemical, and was even labeled as a carcinogen by the EPA (not to mention all the other nasty neurological, liver and kidney risks associated with long-term exposure to the toxin) [Source: EPA]. While the vast majority of dry cleaners still use PERC as the main solvent, many progressive dry cleaning companies have answered the pleas of concerned customers with three different cleaning: wet cleaning, liquid carbon dioxide cleaning and silicone-solvent based cleaning with silicone-solvent and liquid carbon dioxide cleaning as well, if not better, than traditional methods [Source: Green America].
Most eco-friendly cleaners apply the same principle as regular dry cleaning in using an organic solvent, but instead of using PERC, companies like GreenEarth Cleaning [Source: GreenEarth Cleaning] use a silicone-based dry cleaning solvent called Cyclic Silioxane. According to GreenEarth Cleaning, the solvent degrades to sand, water, and carbon dioxide and poses no known threat to the environment or human health (and it doesn’t leave a chemical odor!). They even have the support of General Electric and Proctor & Gamble and are helping dry cleaners worldwide adopt this new method [Source: World Watch Institute]. 1,500 dry cleaners worldwide have already integrated this solvent, and more are following suit. While there had been health concerns about the D-5 solvent causing uterine cancer in female rates, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) concluded in 2008 that D-5 posed no health threat [Source: Wikipedia].
Similar to silicone-solvent cleaning is liquid carbon dioxide. Liquid carbon dioxide uses non-toxic, liquid CO2 – the same as for your soda – as the cleaning solvent, along with detergent. The CO2 that’s used is actually captured as a by-product of existing industrial processes, which decreases the amount of this greenhouse gas into the environment. Not only that, but only two percent of the CO2 is lost into the air with each load of clothing. CO2 cleaning also uses less energy than traditional dry cleaning since it does not require any heating of the solvent [Source: Treehugger]. While both of these performed better than traditional PERC, the costs to switch and install to the new method may be too much for many small companies, liquid CO2 equipment costing about $40,000 for one machine [Source: Green America].
Still, another method exists: wet cleaning. While this method does not perform as well as the previous two it ends up being cheaper to own and operate a wet cleaners than a normal dry cleaners, and surprisingly uses less water as well [Source: Green America]. There has been evidence that the chemical used to pre-treat the clothes may be just as toxic as perc and in California, the use of this spotting agent contributes about 40,000 gallons of trichloroethylene (TCE) and about 150 gallons of PERC yearly [Source: Western Sustainability Pollution Prevention Network]
While there are certainly companies that offer these alternatives, there is still no regulation over dry cleaners claiming that they are green or eco-friendly when they are not. The best thing to do is to rethink your wardrobe and do some research. There are many companies that label their clothes as “Dry Clean Only” when you can put it through the wash. Rayon and acetate are a few textiles that should not be washed, while things like wool or cashmere should not be placed in a dryer (since they will shrink). If you’ve got a wine or berry stain on your white shirt, you can remove it by soaking it in white vinegar than washing it normally. You can even put in a damp towel in with your delicates in the dryer to remove stains and odors. But for regular washing/drying here are some companies:
Of course, if you can’t simply wash your clothes, be sure to look up green dry cleaners. Due to the cost of switching equipment and related costs, many environmentally friendly cleaners may not have made it out to small towns, but in larger cities, you should be able to find them. Beware of signs, and always ask what service they offer. If they say they offer liquid CO2, ask if they use Solvaire machines. These machines replace PERC with glycol ether as a solvent, which may be a kidney and neuro-respiratory toxin. Cleaning clothes in an eco-friendly way is the first step to living a greener life.