Is “Green Dry Cleaning” Really Eco-Friendly?

go green plant ballBefore I knew what “green washing” was, I knew what “green dry cleaning” was. I felt guilty every time I didn’t utilize the eco-friendly clothes-washing experts. After all, their methods were touted by so many sustainability proponents. However, as more and more supposedly “green” businesses are busted for green washing, a query is warranted: is green dry cleaning really just green washing?

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) recently reported that a number of self-proclaimed “green dry cleaners” may be just green washers in, ahem, a cotton plant’s clothing. The WSJ studied several companies that have “greened” themselves by eliminating use of a hazardous liquid solvent called perchloroethylene, or “perc.”
The solvent is a no-go for any truly eco-friendly dry cleaner: It is described as a “hazardous air pollutant” and a “probable human carcinogen” by the Clean Air Act and the International Agency for Research on Cancer, respectively. The Environmental Protection Agency is requiring cleaners located in residential buildings to phase out their perc use, and some states have passed to-be-instated bans on the solvent. (Dry cleaning industry reps say these claims are founded on inconclusive research.)

Accordingly, many dry cleaners seeking to go green have adopted alternatives to perc and traditional cleaning techniques. These techniques, including “wet”, CO2, hydrocarbon, and silicone-based cleaning, are marketed as being environmentally safe. But are they?
According to the WSJ report, the hydrocarbon method uses a solvent that is petroleum-based and contains volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which contribute to smog. Meanwhile, in an in-progress study on silicone-based cleaning liquids, the EPA found that, after two years of exposure to the liquids, lab rats had an increased rate of uterine tumors. (The effect of the silicone-based methods on humans is to be determined.)
What, then is the eco-conscious consumer with dirty-yet-fragile clothing to do? The WSJ report found support for “wet” and CO2 cleaning methods from the EPA and eco-experts in the dry cleaning industry. Heads up, though: wet cleaners should have the equipment necessary for re-shaping the garment after it dries, while providers of CO2 cleaning (which cleans garments with detergent and recycled liquid CO2) should use machines equipped only with approved chemicals.

Sarah Harper is a professional writer based in San Francisco, California. Her interests include sustainability, government policy, and international politics. In her free time, Sarah enjoys toying with the idea of holistic health, overanalysis, and plotting world exploration.

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