The Quick & Dirty On Your Dry Cleaning

Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
By Nadine Farag

Dry cleaning, despite its name, is not a dry process; it actually involves the use of a chemical liquid, perchloroethylene, also known as PERC or PCE. PERC is a powerful anti-stain agent used by approximately 80% of the 30,000 dry cleaners in America primarily because it gets rid of stains without damaging fabric. PERC would be magic if not for the fact that health and environmental agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, have classified it as a toxic chemical, specifically the type that is a “possible to probable human carcinogen”! This nasty chemical has also been linked to nervous system, cognitive, and reproductive impairments resulting from long-term exposure. Cutting out PERC is a no-brainer, and the availability of accessible alternatives has never made the decision easier.

Related: What You Need To Know About Planned Obsolescence

The Alternatives

Professional Wet Cleaning
Most clothes labeled dry clean can actually be wet cleaned, which involves the use of water and non-toxic biodegradable detergent in specialized equipment. Wet cleaning uses no toxic agents, leaves no residue on clothes, uses water and energy less intensively than traditional dry cleaning, and releases no harmful pollutants into the environment. As consumers search for safer dry cleaning options, the hope is that an increasing number of dry cleaners will offer wet cleaning as an option.

Get more information about wet cleaning here.
Carbon Dioxide Cleaning
CO2 cleaning involves pressurizing carbon dioxide into a liquid that is used alongside other nontoxic agents to clean clothes. The CO2 in this process is an industrial byproduct, so this cleaning method does not introduce new greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, the machinery involved allows for the liquid CO2 to be reused, creating an efficient loop that lessens the release of leftover CO2 into the air. The CO2 method has been shown to be highly effective — it won't shrink, stretch or change the shape of the clothing — with one Consumer Reports study concluding that it outperformed even wet cleaning. However, CO2 cleaning is not as widely available because the machinery is still expensive, so you might not find a nearby service, depending on where you live. Find a carbon dioxide cleaner near you.
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Washing by Hand and Machine
According to our friends at the Laundress, many clothes labeled “dry clean” can be washed at home, and there are plenty of online resources to help you determine how to wash certain fabrics yourself. For example, light-colored silks can be washed by hand in cold water using light soap and then air-dried. Wool and cashmere sweaters can be sorted by color and washed by hand or in the machine’s delicate cycle and then laid flat to dry.

Eco-Friendly Dry Cleaners
The final option is to carry on dry cleaning, hold the PERC, with an important caveat: Eco-friendly dry cleaners substitute PERC with other agents to clean clothes. Some of those cleaning agents, including silicon-based Siloxane D5 and petroleum-based hydrocarbon solvents, may not be as toxic as PERC, but there is evidence to suggest that they may have their own health and environmental impacts. Find a GreenEarth® cleaner near you.

Further Greening Your Dry Cleaning
In addition to its chemical impact, dry cleaning also produces packaging waste resulting from disposable hangers and plastic bags. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, 3.5 billion wire hangers end up in landfills each year. One way to reduce your dry cleaning footprint is to bring your hangers back to your dry cleaner for reuse. You’ll be diverting these hangers from the landfill, and your dry cleaner will appreciate the opportunity to reuse them. There are also a number of dry cleaners across the country that provide hanger recycling.

When it comes to plastic, an estimated 300 million pounds of single-used dry cleaning plastic bags are thrown away each year. However, most types of plastic bags are accepted at recycling centers and retailers across the country, including, very often, local grocery stores and retailers including Target. You can also just skip the plastic bag altogether either by buying a reusable dry cleaning bag, such as those available from The Green Garmento or by asking your dry cleaner not to package your clean clothes in plastic.

Next: Where Your Clothes Go After You Stop Wearing Them

More from Fashion