How Clean Is Your Cleaners?

Until now, our posts have dealt with solutions to environmental impacts at their largest scales. But we hear everyday that individual decisions make a difference, so today’s topic is of more immediate relevance to many individuals, particularly those who value pressed shirts and wire hangers.

With enough patience and motivation (and, of course, the right app), consumers today can find organic or “green” alternatives to almost anything. One enticing option that’s been popping up across urban America is the organic dry cleaners. We’ve assumed for years that the chemicals that miraculously clean ketchup stains and skunk odors without a drop of moisture can’t be good for us (or – worse – for those who work with them), and it doesn’t take much imagination to conclude that they harm the environment, as well. But what of the alternatives marketed to us as “green”? Do they really rely on benign concoctions to dissolve schmutz or are you and your clothes simply being greenwashed?

The most common method used in conventional dry cleaners today uses a chemical called perchloroethylene, known as perc for short. Although perc effectively removes dirt and stains from delicate clothing, it inevitably enters rivers and lakes and is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” by the National Institutes of Health. In fact, the EPA has established rules that will eliminate the use of perc in residential buildings starting in 2020; it’s not clear if they will ever ban the chemical entirely, but all signs suggest that a search for better options isn’t frivolous. In response, a host of alternatives has emerged, and many cleaners are taking advantage of this shift to label themselves “green” or even “organic”. Four processes dominate the market for perc-free cleaning, and they are all less harmful than perc. But here’s a wrinkle that shouldn’t go unnoticed – unlike the Department of Agriculture’s strict controls on use of the term “organic” for foods, no such restrictions exist on its use in dry cleaning. A cleaners can be deemed organic as long as the cleaning process uses chemicals containing carbon. This molecular definition, through luck or misfortune, includes perc.

One popular alternative to perc is called hydrocarbon cleaning. The chemical used here is petroleum-based, however, and is a volatile organic compound (there’s that word again). This method has been found to be less toxic than using perc, but if you’re looking for good alternatives, don’t stop here. Another method that appears to be gaining favor in the dry cleaning world is CO2-based. This process involves mixing the clothes with gaseous and liquid carbon dioxide, which apparently dissolves away dirt and grime (but some facilities also add detergents). Those concerned about the CO2’s impact on the climate need not worry – most of the CO2 used for cleaning is captured from industrial processes and reused, so it’s simply being passed through your clothes on its way to the atmosphere. Unfortunately, CO2 cleaning happens to be the most expensive technology.

The third alternative is a patented process called Green Earth Cleaning. Particularly popular in California, Green Earth Cleaning uses a non-toxic solvent that decomposes in a matter of days. Some say they’re certain it’s great, and others say they think it is. Interestingly, the fourth option is actually called wet cleaning. Lauded by environmental groups as the best method for cleaning delicate garments, professional wet cleaning involves mixing your clothes with biodegradable detergents and water at carefully controlled temperatures. Though there’s nothing dry about it, this can safely remove dirt and stains from almost any piece of fragile clothing.

Who knew that dry cleaning could be so convoluted? Next time you misfire the ketchup or spill your double latte, consider what’s behind the flashing neon sign. We have a real opportunity to take advantage of good alternatives – but if we aren’t informed, we may simply be drowning ourselves in a vat of good intentions.

The Verdict: An entire world exists behind the drop-it-and-forget-it banner of revolving hangers. Cleaner, safer alternatives to perc are a reality – but the “green” or “organic” labels at many cleaners do little to ensure they’re really being used. Wet cleaning and the patented Green Earth Cleaning seem to be the best options for cleaning your clothes and avoiding cancer simultaneously. The only way to know what you’re getting is to ask what method a specific cleaners uses – the good news is that if your first stop isn’t satisfactory, there is sure to be a cleaners near by that is.

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