Can Dry Cleaning Ever Be Green?

Maybe you’ve just taken your favorite holiday party dress out of the closet and noticed that it’s acquired an unpleasant aroma, or you forgot to have that wine stain cleaned last year, or maybe you’re just wanting to make sure all your sweaters are in looking their best–chances are high that you’re looking at some dry clean only clothing this season. You’ve probably heard that conventional dry cleaning, which uses a chemical compound called perchloroethylene (perc), is bad for the environment, and you’re not wrong–but what about that eco-friendly dry cleaner that popped up around the corner from work? Is it all a bunch of greenwashing, or is the real deal?

The answer depends on the method used, and how much sleuthing you want to do. Before you send your clothes out for a scrubbing, though, check to see if you need to send them to the pros at all. Many fabrics can be quite safely cleaned at home, including wool, silk, and rayon. Some can be handwashed, while others can be washed in the machine on gentle cycles with mild detergents. Our friends over at Care2 Green Living have more information on caring for fragile garments at home and skipping the environmental and financial cost of dry cleaning.

When customers drop their garments off at a conventional dry cleaner’s, the company actually soaks them in organic solvents (organic in the chemical sense, that is) to lift stains and odors before they press them. The process can be quite effective, even with stubborn stains like wine and ink, and it’s suitable for a range of fabrics. Consumers may notice, however, that dry cleaning leaves clothing shiny and pilled over time, and it can also leave a strange aroma all its own—that’s the remainder of the perc doing what’s known as off-gassing. According to the EPA, perc exposure can be dangerous for workers, and it’s not great for the environment either. If it’s not handled properly, it can seep into groundwater and the air. That’s why California has actually mandated that perc be phased out by 2023, and other states will likely follow suit.

If you absolutely need to have something professionally cleaned and you want to avoid companies that use perc, which accounts for the vast majority of dry cleaning in the United States, here are your options, and their ratings on the green scale:

1) Wet cleaning (A)

This ain’t your laundry room’s wet cleaning. It uses specialized equipment and detergents to gently clean garments with minimal shrinkage. It’s designed to be energy efficient, and according to investigators at Good Housekeepingit’s good for lifting coffee and wine, but stains like oil, ink, and lipstick weren’t so easily dislodged. The big advantage to wet cleaning is that it’s becoming more popular, which means there’s a high probability you can find a wet cleaner near you, and it’s cost-effective because while the equipment is specialized, it doesn’t require a huge investment. Better yet, wet cleaners use less water and electricity than conventional laundries.

2) Carbon dioxide cleaning (A) 

Carbon dioxide usually contributes to global warming, but not in this case! Cleaners use in-house equipment to compress CO2 and use it as a carrier for solvents. Then, they recycle the CO2 to reduce waste and pollution. It’s highly environmentally friendly, and it’s great for lipstick, coffee, and oil — but stubborn ink and wine won’t lift as readily (pretreating can help). It’s also expensive because the equipment is relatively new on the market, and you may have trouble finding a cleaner.

3) Liquid Silicone (C)

A proprietary cleaning process labeled GreenEarth (also called the D5 method) purports to degrade into harmless components, but the science isn’t in yet. The EPA hasn’t taken a formal position on whether it’s safe and some preliminary studies point to potential issues like cancers in organisms exposed to it. It’s also persistent in the environment, so if scientists determine that it’s really dangerous, it will take decades to fully biodegrade, and nature will pay the price. It’s highly effective at removing stains from almost everything though, and it’s becoming more common, so you may be able to find a cleaner who uses this method in your community if you want to take the risk.

4) System K4 (D)

It’s unusual to see System K4, a German dry cleaning alternative, in the U.S. at the moment. However, the manufacturer is trying to spread the use of the product. Kreussler claims that the system, “when used properly,” is more environmentally friendly than conventional cleaning. However, environmental authorities in Washington State beg to differ, finding that the chemicals used can pose a danger to workers and animals, especially if they aren’t handled responsibly. In particular, the still bottoms (residue leftover from the cleaning process) are designated extremely hazardous waste by the state’s hazardous waste laws. For now, it might be a good idea to skip this one, though Kreussler could refine it in the future, making it more safe for use.

5) Perc Alternatives (F)

Other hydrocarbons — chemicals derived from petroleum products — are sometimes used instead of perc. If your primary concern is the environmental problems with conventional dry cleaning, some of these might seem appealing. However, and like all hydrocarbons, they come with environmental costs, though they’re designed to break down more quickly than perc does so they don’t stay around as long. Worse yet, they don’t actually clean all that well.

If you’ve got to dry clean, definitely seek out perc alternatives but don’t be fooled by signs advertising green or organic dry cleaning, because these terms aren’t regulated in the dry cleaning industry and they’re effectively useless. Instead, ask staff which method they use and request information on how they process waste so you can confirm that they’re following guidelines. If they can’t or won’t tell you, take that party dress somewhere else.

Photo credit: Parker Knight.

33 comments

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Thomas U.
Thomas U3 years ago

For Co2 cleaning in Chicagoland Lansing Cleaners. Co2 is also available in the st.paul/minnie MN area,louisvilie,KY area,Lincoln,NE ,NJ and NYC. Only 20 machine remain.

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Joanna M.
Joanna M3 years ago

As a person with autoimmune disease, I've long been skeptical about dry cleaning...better safe than sorry, esp. when it can be avoided.

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ron Dean
ron D3 years ago

Amy C ...Martinizing is a brand name for a pretty much defunct franchise chain that has been around for many decades and when started used perc the same as every one else. I don't know if they even still exist in some areas or what process or process they may use...nothing inherently green about the term " Martinizing"

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Muriel Servaege
Muriel Servaege3 years ago

Thank you.

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margie FOURIE
Margie FOURIE3 years ago

Read the label before you buy. Anything that needs dry cleaning is out for me.

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Anne Moran
Anne Moran3 years ago

Glad I don't need to dry clean stuff anymore, like before, when I was working.. It's all machine washable clothing...

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Nikki Davey
Nikki Davey3 years ago

Thanks. A lot of things are labelled "dry clean only" because people won't wash their delicate fabrics with care.
These days if when I'm shopping I see that an item is only dry-cleanable I won't buy it.

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Amy C.
Amy C3 years ago

Dry cleaning can be unneseccary

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Amy C.
Amy C3 years ago

Martinizing is apparently green

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