How to Find Eco-Friendly Dry Cleaners
The term "dry cleaning" clothes is a misnomer. The process actually involves processing clothes in a liquid solvent to remove soil and stains.
The process of using chemicals instead of water to clean clothes began with the Romans who used ammonia distilled from urine to clean woolen togas. The process of dry cleaning evolved through the centuries until the 1930s when a chlorinated solvent, perchloroethylene, became the leading method for cleaning fabrics without using water.
Perc is a synthetic, volatile organic compound (VOC) that poses a health risk to humans and a threat to the environment. Minimal contact with perc can cause dizziness, headaches, drowsiness, nausea, and skin and respiratory irritation. Prolonged perc exposure has been linked to liver and kidney damage, and cancer.
The majority of dry cleaners, about 80 percent, still use the solvent perchloroethylene or "perc" today. However, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers perc both a health and environmental hazard. In the 1990s the United States Environmental Protection Agency began to regulate dry cleaning chemicals and encourage commercial cleaners to use safer, more environmentally friendly solvents. This action coined the term "Green Dry Cleaning".
What Is Green Dry Cleaning?
Green dry cleaning refers to any alternative dry cleaning method that does not involve the use of perc. One method is wet cleaning which is a more gentle version of home laundering. Three other green cleaning methods follow the traditional solvent model but use carbon dioxide, hydrocarbon or silicon-based cleaners instead of perc.
However, of the four types of alternative cleaning offered in the United States, only two are considered truly safe for the environment and consumers. They are wet cleaning and liquid carbon dioxide cleaning. If you are looking for the most environmentally sound type of cleaning, ask your dry cleaner which of the methods is used in their cleaning process.
Methods Used by Green Dry Cleaners
Wet cleaning uses water and specialized detergents that are milder than home laundry products to clean clothes. Wet cleaners have computerized washers and dryers and professional pressing, steaming, and finishing equipment to help your clothes look their best. Sometimes spinning as slowly as six revolutions a minute (a typical home washing machine may rotate clothes several dozen times per minute). These special machines can be programmed for variables such as time, temperature, and mechanical action, which allow cleaners to tailor the wash according to the type of fabric.
The EPA considers it one of the safest professional cleaning methods because there is "no hazardous chemical use, no hazardous waste generation, no air pollution, and reduced potential for water and soil contamination." Extra care is taken before and after cleaning to treat stains since no chemical solvent is used.
Liquid Carbon Dioxide Cleaning
Carbon dioxide (CO2) cleaning uses liquid CO2 as the cleaning solvent along with detergent. The liquid CO2 is formed by placing the non-flammable and nontoxic gas under high pressure. Liquid CO2 is non-toxic and is actually used to provide carbonation to soft drinks.
DF-2000 Hydrocarbon Solvent
Some cleaners promote themselves as green by using an "organic" solvent called DF-2000. This solvent is a hydrocarbon that must be made from petroleum. Production of these chemicals raises environmental concerns, in particular, over greenhouse gases.
Some cleaners use the GreenEarth cleaning method to replace perc. GreenEarth is basically liquified sand (SiO2). It functions as a silicone-based solvent called siloxane or D-5. Siloxane is similar to some of the base ingredients used in shaving creams and deodorant. When GreenEarth is discarded, it breaks down into sand, water, and carbon dioxide.
The Future of Eco-Friendly Dry Cleaning
The state of California is leading the way toward green dry cleaning by committing to phase out the use of perc by 2023. The state offers grant money to cleaners that switch from perc to CO2 or wet cleaning. Other states are considering similar legislation. Search for dry cleaners in your area that use the wet cleaning and carbon dioxide cleaning methods.