Green Dry Cleaning

Perchloroethylene or “perc” is the dry cleaning chemical used in 80% of dry cleaning operations in the United States. Despite what the name suggests, dry cleaning is not a dry process. Perc is a liquid chemical used for industrial degreasing and deodorizing that first won preference among dry cleaners for its ability to clean fabric without shrinking or fading. Clothes brought to the dry cleaner are submerged in the liquid solvent and then ironed—making your silk blouse ready for another wear.

According to the perc fact sheet from the New York City department of health, “People who are exposed to high levels for many years are at risk for damage to the nervous system, liver, and kidneys, certain cancers and reproductive effects.” Other known side effects of perc exposure include: dizziness, nausea, unconsciousness and death. Yikes.

As consumer preference for “green” solutions grew, and as more information emerged about perc’s toxicity, more perc alternatives arrived on the market. Many of these alternative methods claim to be “organic,” “all-natural” or “green.” However, research shows that only four are truly non-toxic. Here is a brief description of each:

CO2 cleaning-Liquid carbon dioxide cleaning is a method that uses pressurized liquid CO2 in place of perc. In this process, clothes are placed in a specialized machine where the liquid CO2 dissolves dirt, fats, and oils in the clothing. At the end of the cleaning cycle, the liquid CO2 is pumped back into the storage tank to be reused again, with some amount inevitably escaping into the air. This method is endorsed by the EPA.

Silicone cleaning– Referred to as the GreenEarth system, silicone cleaning is similar to conventional dry cleaning. It uses GreenEarth’s patented Siloxane D5 solution (currently licensed to over 1,300 dry cleaners worldwide) to remove stains and odors from fabrics. While there is some debate about the saftely of the silicone based D5 chemical, it is not a classified air contaminant nor is it linked to any chronic illness—making it a popular green choice.

Wet cleaning– A more sophisticated version of laundering in which garments are cleaned with water, special detergents and high-tech machines and then put on tensioning equipment to reshape them. This method uses roughly the same inputs as your home laundry machine, and is also endorsed by the EPA.

K4 System– German dry cleaning technology that is not yet popular in the US. Kreussler, the creator of the K4 System, is currently seeking a patent on K4 so little information is available about the technology. However, it is said to be  “designed in such a way that, when properly used, it does not pose a risk to air, water, human beings and soil.”  Marketing speak? Maybe, but the Classification, Labeling and Packaging Commission (a strict European consumer protection agency) has labeled K4 safe to humans and the enviornment. Keep an eye out for more K4 cleaners in the future; if the Germans are as forward thinking about dry cleaning as they are about making cars, then this system is well positioned to change the landscape of the American dry cleaning market.

Before doing this research I was conflicted about whether to choose a green cleaner over conventional cleaning. Now I know that choosing one of the above four methods is truly better for the earth, dry cleaning industry workers, and our health. But (there is always a but), the ultimate solution for the long term wellness of the earth is to launder our clothes less often all together. Read our Earth Day “Tips for going Green” post to learn ways to care for your clothes while caring for the planet.

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