Laundering the Dirty Business of Dry Cleaning

Photo: istockphoto.com/Frances Twitty

Pasta sauce, wine, toothpaste -- no matter what you get on your favourite white shirt, a dry cleaner can get it out. With such strong stain-fighting power, have you ever wondered just how safe those chemicals are? Pretty hazardous actually, but there are alternatives. To find the best dry & wet cleaners in Canada making a conscious effort to be green, head to the Services category in the Green Living Guides.

Unsafe hydrocarbons
The main solvent used in dry cleaning is called perchloroethylene, also known as PERC. While commonly known as a cleaning agent, it is also used as a metal degreaser and appears in consumer paint strippers. It's a chemical heavily regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) due to environmental concerns.

A manufactured chlorinated hydrocarbon, PERC is a known hazardous air pollutant linked to increased risks of certain cancers. Other possible side effects include skin, eye, nose and throat irritation; reduced fertility; headache; dizziness and nausea.

Dry cleaning employees suffer the most with severe reactions but there has also been documented minor, long-term irritation in customers who use dry cleaning regularly. By simply bringing clothing home from being cleaned, you release PERC into the air, making your indoor air all the more toxic. Runoff from dry cleaning businesses has also resulted in PERC mixing in with local water sources, but so far not much contamination has been linked to this.

Cleaner choices
A few less toxic options are available to consumers. One of the most widely used alternatives is GreenEarth, which uses a silicone-based solvent that carries detergent to the clothes and rinses away trapped dirt and oil. No chemicals are brought to the clothing. Colours stay vibrant and the fabric remains soft with little wrinkling.

After many local and regional awards, the company was presented with the EPA Environmental Achievement Award for all their hard work. Big names like General Electric and Proctor & Gamble recently partnered with GreenEarth to help make this new cleaning option available worldwide.

The other two commonly mentioned eco-conscious options are liquid carbon dioxide (used in high-pressure cleaning machines) and wet cleaning using regular water in computer-controlled washing machines. According to a study done by Consumer Reports, both the liquid carbon dioxide and GreenEarth recently proved to be more effective in cleaning clothes as well as more enviro-friendly than traditional dry cleaning. In the same experiment, wet cleaning did not fair so well and hasn't become very popular among businesses or consumers.

Substitute solutions
Green dry cleaners are still difficult to find. The Canadian Centre for Pollution Prevention is working with Environment Canada on the Green Dry Cleaners Survey, a project to expand the existing green dry cleaners network in Canada. They have aninteractive map to help you find a green dry cleaner in your area. GreenEarth also has a listing of their cleaners for both Canada and the USA.

Just down on your laundry
No matter what method you use to clean your clothing, reducing the number of times you do the wash will help preserve our planet's resources. Consumer Reports suggests the following two tips:

  • Hang up clothes immediately after you've worn them, give them a day off between wearings, and air them out before returning them to the closet. Use a clothes brush occasionally to remove surface dust.
  • Treat spills quickly to prevent staining. And don't iron stained garments; heat sets stains.
  • by Victoria Everman, freelance writer, model, on-camera personality and founder of the San Francisco Craft Mafia.