Clothes & the environment
Not only is the dry cleaning process expensive, but it's also harmful to the environment and your health. A natural solution? Green or eco dry cleaners.
After scouring the racks for that perfect outfit, you get home only to discover the “dry clean only” tag–and your heart sinks. Not only is the dry cleaning process expensive but it’s also harmful to the environment, your health, and the health of your entire family.
When dry cleaning is the only way to get clothes clean, several healthier options are available.
What Exactly is Dry Cleaning?
Most dry cleaners use a petroleum-based chemical called tetrachlorethylene, also known as perchloroethylene, or “perc” for short. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), epidemiological studies of dry cleaners occupationally exposed to perc suggest increased risks for several types of cancer.
Environment Canada has listed perc as a toxic substance under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act since 1999. Fortunately, this chemical is slowly being phased out by dry cleaners; however, according to the Conservation Council of Ontario (greenontario.org), nine out of 10 dry cleaners in Canada still use perc.
What are Some Safe Alternatives?
Your first line of defence is to choose clothes that don’t need to be dry cleaned. Most clothes that call for dry cleaning can simply be washed gently by hand using cold water and then laid flat to dry. This method risks shrinkage, so if you have invested in a piece of quality couture that you want to wear more than one season, consider using any of the following alternative dry cleaning services.
Even if a dry cleaner disposes of chemicals properly, they are still released into the air during use, and at home can be absorbed by all the other clothes in your wardrobe. This is especially harmful to people with sensitive skin or respiratory problems, and can cause headaches, nausea, and dizziness.
Adria Vasil, author of the book Ecoholic (Random House, 2007), recommends taking dry cleaned clothes out of their plastic bag immediately and letting them air outside before bringing them into your home. The perc that is retained in dry cleaned clothing can drastically affect your home’s indoor air quality.
“Food (such as a bag full of groceries) that spends one hour in a car with dry cleaned clothes absorbs elevated levels of perc,” warns Vasil.
The Canadian Centre for Pollution Prevention website (c2p2online.com) lets you search for green dry cleaning services across Canada with an easy-to-use mapping tool. Or access the network of affiliated GreenEarth (silicon) cleaners on the Consumers page at greenearthcleaning.com.
Don’t be fooled by dry cleaners claiming to be “green"–that can mean many things–from phasing out the use of perc to collecting and reusing hangers and recycling plastic bags. Some green dry cleaners use cardboard hangers instead of wire ones.
Although these are viable contributions to the environment, they do not address the health risk of using a perc-based cleaning solvent. The best way to ensure that the dry cleaner you choose is perc-free is to ask about their cleaning process.
There are 21 GreenEarth-approved cleaners listed across Canada who use a patented liquid silicone as a substitute for perc. The nontoxic solvent was developed by General Electric and after use degrades back into the sand from which it is sourced.
Another option is wet cleaning, which uses water and specially formulated, nonpolluting detergents to clean most dry clean-only clothes (including wedding dresses, wool, and silk). This process isn’t 100 percent green, however, since it may release detergents and bleaching agents into the sewer system.
Carbon dioxide cleaners are slowly making their way into our dry cleaning consciousness. According to Green Ontario, this process uses a liquidized CO2 solvent to clean clothes, and recovers 98 percent of the cleaning agent once the process is complete.