Note: post updated 4/4/2013. See end of post.
If you’re a green shopper like me, you’ve probably been stuck in this bind: what do you do when it’s time to clean that “dry clean only” sweater? I know that regular cleaners are chemical and unhealthy, and I’ve seen a range of different eco-friendly alternatives. “Environmentally friendly,” “non-hazardous,” “biodegradable,” “organic,” they advertise. What does it all mean?
Unfortunately, while some cleaners are greener than others, these terms are largely unregulated. (You may recall that Organic has no meaning when applied to “non-agricultural” products.) So it’s easy for a company to get away with a green scam. Let’s dig into some background information first.
Dry cleaning is a dirty process. Traditionally, it involves “washing” clothing at medium temperature with a liquid solvent, usually perchloroethylene, also called “perc.” The clothing is then rinsed in another perc bath, spun dry, and heated so that the remaining perc evaporates.
Perc, unfortunately, is known to cause cancer in humans, and to be very hazardous in the environment. (California has banned it, though the ban won’t be in place until 2023.) It can contaminate air and water. That’s bad news for the workers, for the neighbors, for the region (as perc causes smog), and, of course, for the person actually wearing the sweater — you. One recent study showed that your clothes build up a little more perc with each trip to the cleaners.
So there’s nothing eco-friendly about traditional dry cleaning. (Don’t get us started on the plastic bags!) But what if something else was used instead of perc?
This is where it gets complicated. There are two types of primary alternatives: hydrocarbons like ExxonMobil’s DF-2000 or Chevron’s EcoSolv, and a chemical called liquid silicone or D5, trademarked as GreenEarth. Personally, my green-scam alarm bells go off whenever marketers sell a chemical by calling it “GreenEarth” (the full chemical name is decamethylcyclopentasiloxane).
Hydrocarbons and GreenEarth are not great alternatives. An official document from California’s Air Resources Board notes that both are linked to cancer in some lab studies. While an improvement over perc, they certainly shouldn’t be marketed as “non-toxic” or “eco-friendly.” In fact, six dry cleaners in California were busted earlier this year for using these alternatives, and making hyperbolic claims about how “green” and “safe” they are. [See update below for a note about this case]
So what’s a good eco-citizen to do? Luckily, there are a few good options that are starting to catch on. First, if you’re up for a little extra effort, try hand-washing at home. Silk, wool, and rayon will clean quite nicely! Find a gentle soap, use mildly warm water, and soak. Don’t stretch or wring out – hang or lay flat to dry. You can still take your clothes to a cleaner to be pressed, if you’d like.
But if you’d still like to take your clothes to a service, there are two options that are growing. Oddly enough, the dry cleaning solution may be so-called “wet cleaning.” Using good old water and soap, plus a very carefully controlled drying process to preserve size and shape, your clothes can end up just as spiffy. It’s healthy for workers, leaves your clothes without added toxic stuff, and doesn’t produce hazardous waste.
The other technology that’s catching on is CO2 cleaning. Using pressurized, liquid carbon dioxide, dirt is removed from clothing without other chemicals. Yes, the gas is a contributor to global warming, but it’s usually gas that would’ve been released from industrial processes anyway. And it’s non-toxic and leaves no residue.
Looking to stay green? Your best options are hand-wash at home, Wet Cleaning, or CO2 cleaning.
All told, we think you shouldn’t have to be a chemistry expert to safely clean your clothes. No dry cleaner should be exposing workers and the environment to unsafe chemicals. And when something says “organic” or “earth-friendly,” you shouldn’t have to wonder whether you’re being scammed. So we’re glad to see states like California stepping up regulation: making it safer for everyone, and making it easier to be an eco-friendly consumer. Let’s push for similar measures across the country!
Update 4/4: The folks at GreenEarth cleaning wrote with a clarification: in Santa Monica, none of the implicated dry cleaners were actually using the GreenEarth process, though one was illegally using the GreenEarth trademark, despite cleaning with hydrocarbon. (Let that be a flag — ask questions!) In addition, they emphasize that several other regulatory bodies have found the chemical D5 to be acceptable, including Environment Canada, whose extensive report finds “D5 does not pose a danger to the environment.”
What to make of all this? Well, GreenEarth is a better solution than hydrocarbon, but as with most chemicals, questions remain about its effects. And it’s important to ask questions and be sure you’re not being scammed!
Agree? Disagree? Do you have a favorite method for cleaning, or have you dumped “dry-clean only” altogether? Let us know below.