Greener Option to Dry Cleaning: Celebrate P2 Week!
September 18 By Lorne LaMonica Professional Wet Cleaning (PWC) is a
method of garment cleaning that uses water, a gentle washing
machine, biodegradable soaps and conditioners, and specialized
drying and pressing equipment. The U.S. Environmental Agency
(EPA) recognizes PWC as an example of an environmentally preferable
technology that can effectively clean garments. Source
cleaning or wet cleaning? Liquid CO2 or GreenEarth? Here’s the
on which dry cleaning methods are best for people and the planet.
you are like many Americans, you’re bound to have a few items
around the house that can’t be laundered in the weekly wash. And
while you may have detected the faint whiff of chemicals when you
picked up your freshly dry cleaned sweater last week, perhaps you
didn’t think much of it. But it’s something to be concerned
If you’ve ever taken your clothes to a professional
dry cleaner, the likelihood that they were cleaned with dangerous
chemicals is quite high. Fortunately, there are ways to clean
clothes bearing a “Dry Clean Only” label without harming
workers, putting toxins into the environment, or bringing dangerous
chemicals into your home.
Methods: Beware If
your cleaner claims to be Earth-friendly, be sure to ask about the
specific methods and chemicals she or he uses. Some dry cleaners
will advertise as “green,” “organic,” or “environmentally
friendly” when they are anything but safe for the
Hydrocarbon cleaning methods are not green at all.
Hydrocarbon is a petroleum-based solvent and carries all the
environmental concerns of petroleum, including the fact that it’s
a major source of greenhouse gases.
hydrocarbon cleaners claim their methods are “organic,” which
Sinsheimer says is misleading. “It’s the same thing as
petroleum,” he says. “It’s also a VOC, though it’s not as
toxic as perc.”
You might also run into cleaners that use
the GreenEarth method, which replaces perc with a silicone based
solvent called siloxane or D-5, which is similar to the base
ingredients in deodorant and shaving creams. D-5 degrades to sand,
water, and carbon dioxide. It’s chemically inert, which means no
chemicals mix with your clothes while they are being
However, Dow Corning, D-5’s creator, did a
study that revealed an increased risk of uterine cancer in female
rats that were exposed to D-5, which has led the EPA to note that it
may be a carcinogen. Also, manufacturing D-5 requires chlorine,
which releases carcinogenic dioxin during its own manufacture.
ANN ARBOR—Although dry cleaning
is an effective and inexpensive way to clean clothes, a
relatively new approach to water-based cleaning may work just as
well, while posing less of an environmental burden and producing
less harm to human health, according to a University of Michigan
" Most people don't think about how
their clothes are going to be cleaned when they drop them off at
a neighborhood dry cleaner," say graduate student
researchers at the U-M School
of Natural Resources and Environment. "They
are only interested in receiving professionally cleaned and
pressed clothing at a reasonable price within a short amount of
" But the cleaning method a professional
cleaner chooses affects the environment, human health, the
profitability of the business, the number of regulations with
which the business must comply, and the cleanliness and
appearance of clothes. "
In a comparative study
of professional clothes-cleaning methods, graduate students Catie
Blackler, Richard Denbow, William Levine, Kathy Nemsick and Ruth
Polk found that wet cleaning, which uses water and biodegradable
detergents, can be an environmentally and economically viable
alternative to dry cleaning, which involves the use of
perchloroethylene (perc), a chlorinated solvent used by most dry
Prior research has shown that perc
is toxic to humans, can contaminate ground water, and must be
disposed of through incineration and landfill disposal, the
researchers say. Further, perc has been linked to leukemia and
cancers of the bladder, intestines, pancreas and esophagus, and
the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
cautions that perc should be handled as a human
According to the U-M report, more than
80 percent of commercial dry cleaners in the United States use
perc. In 1991, dry cleaners released about 180 million pounds of
perc into the atmosphere and another 90 million pounds of perc-
laden waste were removed by authorized hazardous-waste disposal
facilities, the researchers say.
On the other hand,
wet cleaning, which uses water and non-toxic detergents, greatly
reduces health and environmental risks associated with perc use,
they say. Wet cleaning uses a combination of water-based machines
with sophisticated timing, agitation and temperature controls to
clean the majority of clothes, while steaming, tumbling, spotting
and hand washing account for the remaining amount.
researchers add, however, that a concern exists over the amount
of waste water and water-usage expenses associated with wet
" The environmental impacts of using
and treating water are much higher for wet cleaning than they are
for dry cleaning," they say. " The process uses
significantly more water, but this could be partially mitigated
through the use of water recycling. "
cost of perc and charging detergents used in dry cleaning is
cheaper than the cost of wet-cleaning detergents and sizing
agents, dry cleaning incurs additional costs related to the
disposal of hazardous perc-contaminated wastes, the study
" When these disposal costs are included
in the cost of perc usage, the cleaning agents for wet cleaning
are less expensive than those for dry cleaning," the
In addition, wet cleaning involves
fewer initial capital expenditures and lower electricity costs
than dry cleaning, in large part because dry cleaning uses
energy- intensive pollution-control equipment, they say.
a 1994 demonstration project that found a 97 percent
customer-approval rate, the researchers say that wet cleaning
appears to wash clothes as well as dry cleaning. While water does
not dissolve stains such as oils, greases, fats and waxes as well
as perc, non-chlorinated spotting agents used in wet cleaning are
quite effective in removing them.
problem of wet cleaning—garment shrinkage—can be controlled
through the use of specially designed programmable drying
machines for most garments or by drip drying, they add.
all, their study calls for more research on the long-term
performance effects of wet cleaning, an analysis of the amount of
labor it requires and development of waste- water recycling
technologies. To encourage commercial dry cleaners to use wet
cleaning systems, the researchers recommend government-subsidized
worker-training programs, tax breaks and low-interest loans to
Moreover, cleaners who are expanding
capacity should consider buying a wet cleaning machine, which
would " provide the cleaner and their customers with greater
flexibility in choosing how to clean garments," they
Despite financial incentives, the researchers
concede that persuading dry cleaners to convert to wet cleaning
may be an arduous task.
" Most wet cleaners
have been operating for less than one year and their business is
being compared to an industry with over 40 years of experience,"
they say. " Until wet cleaning has been operating long
enough to collect empirical data on both cost and performance,
dry cleaners will continue to maintain a level of skepticism
about its practicality. "
The report was
published by the U-M's National
Pollution Prevention Center (NPPC). Greg
Keoleian, assistant research scientist and NPPC manager, was the
faculty adviser for the study.