Most of the nation’s 34,000 dry cleaners still clean clothes using perchloroethylene, an air contaminant. But some are moving to greener and safer methods.
The dry-cleaning industry has come under scrutiny for its use of perchloroethylene ("perc"), a chemical solvent that does a good job cleaning and not damaging sensitive fabrics but which is also considered an air contaminant by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and a probable human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
Exposure to perc can irritate skin and has been associated with central nervous system disorders. Drycleaners are required to reuse what perc they can and dispose of the rest as hazardous waste, but there are still concerns about contamination at sites that don't follow best practices.
So-called wet cleaning — whereby cleaning professionals use small amounts of water, non-toxic detergents and conditioners inside specially designed machines to get fine garments and other fabrics clean — is one of the most promising alternatives.
Garments are agitated in the computerized wet cleaning machine just enough to extract the dirt and grime, but not enough to alter the structure, size or color, reports the website Earth911.com.
The EPA is encouraging drycleaners to make the switch to greener solvents through a cooperative partnership with the professional garment and textile care industry. The partnership recognizes the wet cleaning process as "an environmentally preferable technology that is effective at cleaning garments."
Another green alternative to perc is using pressurized carbon dioxide (CO2) to get fabrics clean. CO2 exists as a gas at low pressure but turns to liquid at higher pressure and can serve as a solvent in tandem with non-toxic soap to get materials clean.