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Dry Cleaning

Your outfit says “Dry Clean Only”? 


Sometimes you can handwash these items- cool water, very gently (hand powered) agitation, and line drying is safe for many garments that masquerade as "dry clean only."  But for your most treasured (or expensive) items, there are more environmentally friendly options. 


The most common method of dry cleaning uses the toxic solvent and probable carcinogen perchloroethylene, commonly referred to as “perc.”  The state of California has enacted a ban on perc, starting in 2023.  The first step, banning dry cleaners from buying machines that require perc, has already taken place.  By July 2010, any machines using perc that are 15 years or older must be phased out.  Perc has contaminated one in 10 wells in California.  It is the worst dry cleaning choice for the environment, and for your health.

There are several alternatives to perc dry cleaning (which still accounts for about 85% of dry cleaners).


Best Option- Wet cleaning- uses water and non-toxic, biodegradable detergents in computer-controlled washers and dryers before ironing or steam pressing.  Wet cleaning produces no toxic air or water pollution, and is very energy efficient.  The Center for Neighborhood Technology found 90% of customers gave wet cleaning "good or excellent" ratings, but in a 2003, Consumer Reports were less than impressed.  It is noted by Peter Sinsheimer, director of the Pollution Prevention Center at Occidental College, that wet cleaning technology is more sophisticated today.  Wet cleaning detergents and waste water usually drains directly into the public sewers, and it is possible that there may be some unknown potential environmental effects of the detergents used.  However, this is widely considered the most environmentally friendly option.


Best Option- Liquid carbon dioxide- uses CO2 that has been captured from existing industrial and agricultural emissions.  Since this method recycles CO2, it does not contribute to global warming.  However, the detergents used in CO2 cleaning do contain some volatile organic compounds (VOCs).  In 2003, Consumer Reports considered CO2 cleaning to be comparable to perc cleaning, and rated it as the best cleaning method with regard to shrinkage, discoloration, and preservation of texture.  Special detergents have been developed for CO2 cleaning methods, so if you choose a CO2 cleaner, ask if their detergents are environmentally friendly.  If a cleaner says it uses liquid CO2, ask if they use a Solvair machine.  Solvair cleaners may call themselves liquid CO2 cleaners, since they use liquid CO2 as a rinse.  Solvair machines replace perc with glycol ether, suspected by the EPA to be a toxin and a possible hormone disrupter.  


Other Options- Hydrocarbon solvents- use petroleum-based chemicals that are less toxic than perc, but can't be labeled environmentally safe until considerably more testing is done.  Hydrocarbon solvents could be toxic or contain VOCs.  The EPA and the Coalition for Clean Air have asked for further testing to determine the safety of hydrocarbon solvents for the environment and whether they are toxic to people.


Other Options- Siloxane- uses a chemical less toxic than perc, that left in the environment will degrade within days into silica, water, and CO2.  Although siloxane is not chlorinated itself, it is manufactured using chlorine, which releases carcinogenic dioxin emissions.  The EPA considers siloxane to be a possible carcinogen.  


When you choose a cleaner, ask what specific methods and chemicals they use. 


Consider the specific fabric: wet cleaning methods are the most environmentally friendly and safe cleaning method, but CO2 cleaning might be your best option for an expensive tailored wool jacket or a brightly colored rayon blouse.  Wet methods are fine for silks.


The EPA's list of wet cleaners and CO2 cleaners nation-wide 



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