Friday, July 13, 2007

"Organic" Dry Cleaning?


Have you noticed your neighborhood dry cleaner's new sign?
"Environmentally friendly dry cleaning." "Organic dry cleaning."

What the heck does that mean?

Unfortunately, most of it is just meant to make you feel better. It's hard to be "environmentally friendly" if you understand what goes on after you drop off the fancy clothes.
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Dry cleaning is not really "dry."

Your clothes actually go through a wash and dry cycle in a machine not unlike the domestic washing machine. But instead of using detergent, a dry cleaning fluid (solvent such as perchloroethylene) is used. After a wash and rinse, the extraction process recovers dry cleaning solvent for reuse. The garments are then tumbled dry and ready for pressing/finishing.

Interestingly, the use of petroleum based solvents for dry cleaning started in the mid-19th century. Given the high flammability risk, the dry cleaning industry played with several permutations of cleaning solvents until perchloroethylene was created. Since the 1930's, perchloroethylene, or "perc," has been the gold standard dry cleaning solvent.

Perchloroethylene, despite known toxicity risks, is still the most common solvent in use. Even if you don't use a dry cleaner, or don't go very often, the following should make you think twice:
The general population, excluding dry cleaners, is also exposed to PERC at low but measurable levels in the air, drinking water, and food. Visiting dry-cleaning premises is considered to be an important source of exposure, and clothes that have been subjected to commercial dry cleaning with PERC have been shown to be a source of indoor air pollution. In addition, contaminated building materials from dry-cleaning premises may represent a long-term reservoir of PERC.

Recent studies have shown that individuals who live in a neighborhood occupied by dry-cleaning establishments may be exposed to sufficient amounts of the chemical, resulting in measurable concentrations in their blood and in exhaled breath.

Given the results from animal studies and the bad press, perc has been labelled the bad boy of dry cleaning chemicals, which has left the dry cleaning industry scrambling to try to find the next gold standard. And in the black and white world of "good" versus "bad," "environmentally friendly" is often used in the loosest of ways, as in "we don't do perc, so OBVIOUSLY we are environmentally friendly."
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What exactly are these "environmentally friendly" alternatives?

Hydrocarbons (DF-2000 made by none other than Exxon, EcoSolv from Chevron, modified blends such as PureDry) - slightly less flammable and explosive than Stoddard solvent; not as effective as perchloroethylene. According to the local dry cleaner, this is a "completely non-toxic" alternative. However, a review of EPA data would suggest otherwise. It's probably not as bad as perc, but it's not environmentally friendly, and it DEFINITELY doesn't fit my definition of non-toxic. If that isn't enough, would you like to find yet other ways to contribute to big oil's pockets?

Cyclic Silicone decamethylcyclopentasiloxane
(GreenEarth) — slightly less flammable and explosive than Stoddard solvent; not as effective as perchloroethylene. Reported to degrade within days to SiO2 (sand), CO2 (carbon dioxide), and H2O (water), but toxicity tests by Dow shows increased incidence of tumors in female rats. Thought to be a potential carcinogenic hazard.

Liquid CO2reported to be superior to perc; machinery is very expensive. A relative new-comer to commercial use. Thought to be the least toxic of all current dry cleaning options. No known toxicities from CO2 dry cleaning to date, but it's a relatively new method. Anyone interested in participating in a real, live experiment?

"Wet cleaning" with regular water in computer-controlled washing machines - doesn't clean garments as well as industrial grade solvents.
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What's the take home point from all of this?

Be an informed consumer.
Not all garments that are currently dry cleaned need to be dry cleaned. Even if the tag says so.

Ask what your dry cleaner means by "environmentally friendly."

Pick your poison
- try to chose the least toxic of the alternatives.

At the very least, know what happens to your clothes and try to minimize your exposure to potentially toxic chemicals.
photo credit

1 Comments:

Blogger Bill said...

Your article is spot on with the exception of wet cleaning. Wet cleaning is, in fact, a superior cleaning process. The majority of stains handled by dry cleaners are food (typically water based) which requires complete flushing and drying of the stain. Wet cleaning usually only requires pretreating (with no steam or drying required) but post spotting can still be used if necessary. Perc excels at removing grease only, everything else is better done in water. Especially Perspiration! It is simply not soluble in perc or other dry solvents.
In a nutshell, wet cleaning is safest and best. It has matured from a one-piece-at-a-time in a bucket to a truly modern, automated process.

3:07 PM  

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