Greener Alternatives to Dry Cleaning

May 25, 2011 View all articles in General

While you may have heard dry cleaning is a bad thing, it isn't likely that many of us are able to explain the actual impacts or dangers behind it. The true culprit is the solvent perchloroethylene, or perc. Perc is used by almost all 35,000 traditional dry cleaners in the country; nearly 60 million pounds per year. During the cleaning, purification, and waste disposal phases of dry cleaning, perc can get into the air, the water, and the ground. When perc seeps through the ground it contaminates surface water, groundwater, and potentially drinking water. In fact, it is estimated that nearly half of the United States ' groundwater is polluted with perc. Not only is it harmful to the environment, perc can also be stored in the body and is linked to an increased risk of various cancers; reduced fertility; as well as eye, nose, throat, and skin irritations.

Because of the concerns surrounding perc and other equally harsh dry cleaning solvents, several new technologies and solvents have been created and are in various stages of development. While the goal of completely phasing perc out of the dry cleaning business still remains at large, it is left to us to find perc-free methods for getting our clothes clean.

WET CLEANING

One of these recently developed technologies is called wet cleaning, which uses specially-formulated, biodegradable detergents and nontoxic additives to wash and dry clothes gently. Wet cleaning machines are typically computerized and allow professionally trained cleaners to customize the settings for individual garments.

Wet Cleaning Cons

  • Since this method of cleaning is so new, its potential environmental impacts are still largely unknown, especially as they relate to water and energy use.
  • The detergents and additives still go down the drain, so certain chemicals may pose threats to aquatic toxicity.
  • Wet cleaned garments require more work, which requires specialized labor-saving equipment.
  • A 2003 Consumer Reports article notes that wet cleaning methods might not be as effective on linen.

Wet Cleaning Pros

  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers wet cleaning environmentally preferable to dry cleaning, as it is performed in a solution of water with a smaller percentage of additives and doesn't create toxic air.
  • Wet cleaning often delivers superior results when cleaning silks, wool sweaters, and suedes and leathers.
  • It is a sensible choice for chemically-sensitive customers, as it doesn't appear to have negative health effects.
  • Both wet cleaning machines and wet cleaning products have demonstrated dramatic sale increases in the last few years, which means fewer standard dry cleaning services are being used.

LIQUID CARBON DIOXIDE (CO2)

Developed by the award-winning Hangers Cleaners ( www.hangerskc.com ), this method uses CO 2 captured from the production of industrial chemicals and natural sources as a solvent instead of toxic cleaning materials.

Liquid Carbon Dioxide Cons

  • At the end of the cleaning cycle, 98 percent of the CO 2 is recovered and reused, but a small amount is emitted into the atmosphere. While the CO 2 cleaning agents are nontoxic, some of the detergents may still contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
  • Locations are difficult to find and because of the high cost required for cleaners to convert to CO 2 machines, services are often more expensive than regular dry cleaning.

Liquid Carbon Dioxide Pros

  • Consumer Reports found that liquid CO2 performed even better than perc.
  • The toxic solvents and hazardous waste disposal of dry cleaning is eliminated.
  • The CO2 solvent is non-flammable and exists naturally, so it doesn't pose any health risks to either the cleaners or the customers.
  • It is recommended by the EPA.
  • It has been recognized for its pollution prevention achievements by multiple awards programs.

For a state-by-state listing of both wet and CO2 cleaners, visit http://www.epa.gov/oppt/dfe/pubs/garment/gcrg/cleanguide.htm .

AT HOME CLEANING METHODS

Personal Dry Cleaning: Though this method is not completely free of chemicals, it is free of perc. Home dry cleaning kits do not provide the same results achieved by a professional, but they might be a better, more responsible choice if eco-friendly dry cleaners aren't available in your area.

Re-Evaluate Your Wardrobe: There are a lot of low-care fabrics available these days. Checking labels before you purchase will reduce professional cleaning costs and environmental impacts.

Steam: Lightly soiled articles may be steam cleaned in your dryer with a damp colorfast towel.

Use Your Washer: Modern washers' gentle cycles are better equipped to handle delicate fabrics that were once ‘dry clean only.'

  • For wool, cashmere, alpaca, angora, and mohair garments, just hand wash with mild soap in 100-degree (F) water and add some distilled white vinegar when you rinse; then lay flat and stretch them to their original size to dry.
  • For rayon garments, simply hand wash in cool water with soap or detergent and rinse. Instead of twisting or wringing out the water, press it out after rinsing.
  • For silk garments, swirl them around in 100- to 120-degree water with some gentle castile soap with a neutral pH. Avoid damaging UV rays by hanging silk garments indoors to dry. And instead of ironing, hang them in a steamy bathroom to remove wrinkles.

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