By now, most environmentally minded folks are ever weary of the rampant green-washing that has become so prevalent as more and more profiteers siphon gas from the proverbial green bandwagon (odd metaphor, but you get the picture). Walking around most major metropolitan areas, one will likely notice the abundance of “green” dry cleaners sprouting up, claiming an “environmentally friendly process” and an approach that is “organic and safer” than traditional dry cleaning methods. But what are “green” dry cleaners and are they legitimate green alternatives?
First off, let’s get the basics down. Most traditional dry cleaners use the solvent perchloroethylene (or perc) to wash and remove stains from clothes. Because perc is highly stable, nonflammable, and an excellent solvent for organic materials, it is widely used for dry cleaning, among other uses. Unfortunately, perc is also classified as a Group 2A carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and a health and environmental hazard by the Environmental Protection Agency. Prolonged, as well as limited exposure, can lead to various degrees of increased risks of bladder, esophageal, and cervical cancer, eye, nose, throat and skin irritation, and reduced fertility. In addition, it can leak from its sources and affect air and water quality, though to what extent is debatable. Basically, perc is not very environmentally friendly.
Enter “green” dry cleaners. Currently, there are three common alternatives.
1) Liquid Carbon Dioxide (yes, CO2)
2) Silicone-solvent based
3) Wet (soap and water) cleaning
Liquid carbon dioxide cleaning uses non-toxic, liquid CO2 as the cleaning solvent in conjunction with detergent to clean garments. During the process, the CO2 and detergents are captured as a by-product, cleaned, and re-used. Silicone-solvent based cleaning works in much the same way as liquid CO2 cleaning, using liquid silicone instead of liquid CO2. Wet cleaning uses water and mild detergent along with specialized washers and dryers. The EPA considers it one of the safest professional cleaning methods, though it may not clean quite as effectively as the two aforementioned methods.
You can find more info on Silicone-solvent based Dry Cleaning here
You can find more info on Wet Dry Cleaning here
In 2006, the EPA, under the Bush administration, proposed regulations to gradually eliminate perc from dry cleaning establishments in apartment buildings by 2020. Amidst legal opposition from the Sierra Club, the EPA is now reconsidering its position and could follow California in a complete ban of perc from dry cleaning operations. The Sierra Club cites that dry cleaners within apartment buildings account for less than ten percent of the U.S. total, leaving over 28,000 establishments to face light mitigation requirements.
Of course, one of the greenest courses of action would be to only dry clean your garments when necessary. On top of that, some clothes that claim, “dry clean only,” may not necessarily be dry clean only; it’s just a liability issue. Happy cleaning!