A Quick(ish) Guide to Eco-Friendly Dry Cleaning

1208446254Until Tuesday, I was fairly ignorant of the particular hazards of dry cleaning. Until Tuesday, I vaguely understood that the chemicals used in the process were not awesome, so I would be sure to tear off the plastic bag right away and let my clothes air out after picking them up. (I would also sort of try to hold my breath every time I stopped by the cleaners.)

But then Tuesday came. And what began as an extremely simple work-related query to the people in charge of a local dry-cleaning chain exploded into a hostage situation in which I was stuck on the phone for roughly 17.5 hours. But! I did come away with some (kind of) interesting information regarding dry cleaning solvents and practices.

Here, the very abridged version of What I Semi-Consensually Learned About Perchloroethylene.

1) Perchloroethylene, or perc, is the solvent that’s used by the vast majority of dry cleaners. It’s colorless, flammable, and eliminates grease-based stains without shrinking fabric or causing colors to bleed. Perc’s been around since the 1920s, when it was used to treat hookworm. (!)

2) The EPA classified perc as a hazardous substance. Studies have linked it to bladder and esophageal cancers.

3) There are new hydrocarbon-based solvents that are better (read: noncarcinogenic) but not totally great (read: hydrocarbon solvents are oil-based and therefore produce fossil fuels). If you go to an “eco-friendly” dry cleaner, this is likely the method they employ (but there’s some irony to that term because fossil fuel production is obviously decidedly eco-hostile).

4) There are three other forms of non-perc dry-cleaning:

Carbon dioxide-based cleaning: Perhaps the most awesome of all methods; also the most awesomely expensive, as one carbon dioxide washing machine costs five times as much as a perc machine.

Wet cleaning: Awesome for health; not awesome for septic tanks.

Silicone-based solvents: Possibly awesome; also possibly linked to uterine cancer.

5) Perc is actually not harmful as long as the machines are up-to-date and everything is properly ventilated. (It evaporates when exposed to air, which is why airing out your clothes after picking them up actually makes sense. But also why people who work at dry cleaners and/or live above ones with old machines might have reason to worry.)

6) Whatever your dry cleaning practices may be, they probably don’t rank among your most unhealthy habits. But worrying and reading stuff like this might. And you can probably hand-wash most of your items labeled “dry clean.”

In the end, picking an environmentally friendly dry cleaners isn’t as easy as it should be. Dependable Cleaners and Clevergreen use hydrocarbon solvent. Anton’s has some machines that use perc, some that use hydrocarbon, and some that use a silicone-based solvent. I couldn’t find any local cleaners that use carbon dioxide. And I’m sort of tempted to resort to a wardrobe made entirely of hemp.