Dry cleaning would have to be the two dirtiest words in the cleaning business. For a cleaning method that uses no water, it sure does have a heavy environmental impact (and on ourselves, too).
Dry cleaning chemicals are toxic
Conventional dry cleaners will pre-treat grease and oil stains with a solvent or treat water soluble stains with water, and then submerge in perchloroethylene, hydrocarbon or K4 to remove dirt and oil.
Perchlroethylene (or PERC) is a toxic chemical that can damage the nervous system and leave you dizzy or unconscious when exposed. Long term exposure to PERC can additionally damage the liver and kidneys, cause respiratory failure, memory loss, confusion, leave your skin dry and cracked, and can cause problems in developing foetuses.
Even short term exposure at low levels can cause irritation of the eyes, nose, mouth, throat and respiratory tract. It’s also a groundwater contaminate and acutely toxic to wildlife. The EPA has labelled PERC a likely human carcinogen and the chemical is slowly being phased out. In the meantime, is this really a chemical you want so close to your skin?
What’s the alternative to dry cleaning?
You may not be aware that many items with a dry clean only label (in particular anything made of wool) can actually be hand washed carefully, in an eco friendly detergent, avoiding chemicals and possibly even putting the grey water from the wash to good use.
There have also been improvements in the dry cleaning process, paving the way for some dry cleaners to label themselves as non toxic or even organic (though be extremely mindful that the term ‘organic’ is not regulated in the dry cleaning industry).
Look for CO2 dry cleaners – carbon dioxide cleaning that is far less harmful but effective in removing stains, even outperforming PERC in consumer reports. Clothes are washed in a machine using biodegradable cleaning liquid. The machine is pressurised and the CO2 turns from a gas to a liquid under pressure. The cold liquid CO2 rinses cleaning liquid from the clothes, then the CO2 vaporises as gas when pressure is reduced, leaving the surface material clean and instantly dry.
Another option is GreenEarth cleaning which uses liquid silicone in place of petrochemicals, meaning that the liquid sand breaks down into the three natural elements it’s made from: sand and trace elements of water and carbon dioxide. This means that it’s a safe solution for the air, water and soil. GreenEarth dry cleaners are found in all states of Australia, including some outside the capital cities.
Reducing the chemical load of dry cleaning
If you aren’t located near a CO2 dry cleaner or a GreenEarth dry cleaner, there are still things you can do to minimise the chemical load of conventional dry cleaning.
PERC fluid remains in the clothing fibres after it is cleaned. And usually, your garments are delivered inside plastic garment protectors. Remove the plastic and hang your garments outside so that the PERC residue can air out in the open air instead of in your wardrobe. If you don’t have a yard or a garage to hang your dry cleaning, leave them in a room of your home with a window open and the door closed for a few days.
Pay careful attention to the care labels of your clothing and bedding before you buy as you can save yourself the challenge of finding an environmentally friendly dry cleaner. Learn how to care for wool and silk by hand washing and drying in the shade instead of dry cleaning, as it’s estimated that upwards of 65% of dry clean only garments can be machine or hand washed.
You can also try your hand at dry cleaning in your own home. Often, steam is enough to remove some stains. Another do-it-yourself remedy is using vodka! The alcohol kills the bacteria that causes odours, it evaporates quickly and doesn’t leave an evaporation ring. Make sure that you test any of these methods on a small amount of fabric that can’t be seen before you try a large section, like doing a patch test. We suggest leaving leather and suede to the experts, though.
Image credit: Ralph Aichinger on Flickr
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