You’ve probably read enough to know that dry cleaning isn’t the healthiest or greenest way to clean your clothes. The main culprit is the chemical perchlorethylene or “perc” which is used by most dry cleaners. The EPA calls perc a hazardous air pollutant and the International Agency for Research on Cancer lists it as a probable carcinogen.
Perc is not just a problem for workers cleaning the clothes. We bring it home and even keep it in a bag in our closets for months. This can prolong our exposure. Yes, dry cleaning is decidedly not green but where does that leave us when the label of our favorite sweater says “Dry Clean Only”? Here are a few green options:
Some dry cleaners are converting to wet cleaning. They use computer-controlled machines and less-toxic, biodegradable detergents to wash and dry garments. Wet cleaners then finish by ironing or steam pressing the garment. So there is no toxic air and water pollution, and you’re not bringing home a bag full of carcinogens.
However, wet cleaning is not the best option for some fabrics — as I found when I tried to have my wedding dress wet cleaned. So make sure your wet cleaner is knowledgeable enough to tell you what’s best for your garment.
Consumer Reports tested different cleaning processes and found CO2 cleaning to be more effective than dry cleaning. This type of cleaning recycles CO2 from other industrial processes and the recaptured CO2 acts as the cleaning agent. Of course, CO2 is a greenhouse gas, but this process does not create more CO2 and actually saves some emissions because it uses the CO2 that would have been released into the air. Also, CO2 that is used in one cleaning cycle is recaptured and reused in the next cycle.
Even better, CO2 cleaning doesn’t use heat to clean your clothes which not only saves energy but also saves your clothes. That’s because heat can set stains, break down fabric fibers, fade colors and even shrink your clothes.
CO2 cleaning is now considered the best alternative to dry cleaning. The only problem is there are less than 40 CO2 cleaners around the country. Consider yourself lucky if there’s one near you. To find out, click here
What Not To Do
Don’t buy one of those home dry cleaning kits. They don’t contain perc but they’re not squeaky clean either. Home kits can contain the same petroleum-based toxins in detergents and fabric softeners. They are also typically heavily fragranced which usually means hormone-disrupting phthalates. What’s more, they’re designed to be disposable which makes these not a great choice for your health or the environment.
If you’re not lucky enough to live near one of these progressive perc-free cleaners, or you’re cheap like me, your best option may be to do it yourself. It requires some guts as you defy the “dry clean only” decree on the tag. But, if you know what you’re doing, your clothes will come out clean and toxin-free. That’s a topic for next week…
Kimberly Delaney is the author of Clean Home, Green Home: The Complete Illustrated Guide to Eco-Friendly Homekeeping, forthcoming this fall from the Knack imprint of Globe Pequot Press.