The Messy Truth About Dry Cleaning

Sunday, August 10, 2008

When it comes to the environment, traditional dry cleaning is downright dirty. The liquid solvent used at 85 percent of dry cleaners, perchloroethylene, known as "perc," is unequivocally bad for people and the planet: It's a central nervous system depressant and respiratory irritant that the Environmental Protection Agency deems a "probable human carcinogen." According to the EPA's Web site, it also seeps into air; breaks down into other chemicals, "some of which are toxic, and some of which deplete the ozone layer"; and can seep into groundwater and eventually drinking water.

The issue is not how bad the chemical is (it's bad) but how much of it people are exposed to. Although the EPA has regulations for dry cleaners on containing it (it is considered hazardous waste), people who live in buildings that house dry cleaners are exposed to more of it, and the agency has ordered a phase-out of perc in residential buildings. California, meanwhile, passed a law last year requiring the chemical to be phased out altogether by 2023. Although the EPA's site says "it is very unlikely that people will get cancer from having their clothes drycleaned" because residue levels are low, perc is not a desirable substance to be worn next to skin, inhaled or consumed in tap water.

The good news? More establishments are touting themselves as "organic" or "green" dry cleaners. Unfortunately, in some cases they're engaging, quite literally, in greenwashing. No regulations govern the labeling of dry-cleaning methods, and in chemistry parlance, "organic" refers to anything containing a chain of carbon molecules; even perc is organic by that definition. DF-2000, a new chemical solvent, is used by some dry cleaners, but it's based on petroleum and releases smog-forming volatile organic compounds.

The poetically named GreenEarth method, used at OXXO Care Cleaners locations, uses G5, a form of liquid silicone. Although it is nontoxic and breaks down to what essentially amounts to sand, a Dow Corning study found that constant exposure to silicone-saturated air caused cancer in female lab rats. The Silicones Environmental, Health and Safety Council, an industry group, says that the studies aren't applicable to humans and that the compound is safe. However, G5's production requires chlorine, which can produce dioxin, a pollutant.

The greenest cleaning methods are wet cleaning and a process using liquid carbon dioxide. Wet cleaning relies on water and biodegradable detergents in a computer-controlled process that regulates temperature, pH and agitation to clean each garment as gently and thoroughly as possible. Liquid CO2is a virtually pollution-free solvent; carbon dioxide gas is compressed into a liquid (the CO2is harvested from industrial byproducts, so the process doesn't contribute to global warming). According to the EPA, it functions "as a very effective cleaning medium when combined with detergents."

Check with your local dry cleaners to find out which method they use, and remember that improving cleaning methods isn't the only way that your dry cleaning can get greener. An equally eco-friendly step is to forgo the plastic bags (bring your own garment bag) and ask your cleaner not to bother with paper hanger sleeves. Some shops offer hanger-recycling programs. If you have extra wire hangers, bring them in; most establishments will happily take them. And don't dry-clean unless a garment is truly dirty; after all, sometimes soap and water, or a bit of fresh air, work just as well.

-- Eviana Hartman

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