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A Greener Way to Dry Clean
January 2011
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New Eco-Friendly Methods Help the Planet

greener_way_dry_cleanDry cleaning may be convenient—but until now, it has not been a friend of the environment.

It makes no sense. First, there are the harsh chemicals used to clean the clothes. Most facilities continue to use PERC (short for percholorethylene), a suspected carcinogen that is released in cleaners’ airborne emissions, from where it can eventually contaminate soil and groundwater. With as many as 35,000 dry cleaning facilities nationwide, this poses a major public health and environmental concern.

Additional commonly used dry-cleaning chemicals with toxic repercussions include petroleum-based solvents like PureDry and EcoSolve, and GreenEarth, a silicone-based solvent that breaks down into sand, water and carbon dioxide.

Beyond the chemicals, standard dry-cleaning practices come with lots of built-in waste; the most obvious being the ubiquitous plastic garment covers and disposable hangers.

A New Era

Aware of their planet-harming public image, dry cleaners, many of which are small, family-owned businesses, have set out to reinvent themselves in recent years. Unfortunately, sometimes this involves little more than adding the word “organic” or “green” to a company’s name. To be clear, customers must inquire whether or not a particular cleaner uses PERC or one of the other harmful chemicals to determine if a green-sounding name has merit.

The good news is that more dry cleaners across the country are actually shifting to alternative cleaning methods that leave less impact on the environment. A new certification agency called the Green Cleaners Council (GCC) is helping to lend weight to a cleaner’s green claims.

Fresh Technologies

One alternative to traditional dry-cleaning, known as CO2 cleaning, uses liquid carbon dioxide—the type used to carbonate soda—as its active solvent, mixed with dry cleaning detergent. During the cleaning process, the excess CO2 released is captured and reused.

Even better, an Environmental Protection Agency-approved wet cleaning method uses water and “environmentally preferable detergents” to safely clean delicate clothes, and emits no air pollution, nor does it leave hazardous waste behind. The only negative environmental impact with this approach is the use of additional water.

The EPA estimates that 10 percent of the industry has shifted to wet cleaning, a number that’s on the rise. Intriguingly, all cleaners have the capacity to wet clean at least some items using existing equipment, the agency reports, and some 3,000 establishments are likely offering some degree of wet cleaning (based on equipment sales).

Ann Hargrove has the distinction of operating the first wet cleaning business in the United States. Today, she is a member of the GCC, providing the environmental certification the industry has lacked. Much like other green standards groups, the council rates dry cleaners based on a long list of environmental attributes. After verifying claims, the council awards cleaners between one and five leaves, based on their green credibility.

“The nice part about what we’re doing,” says Hargrove, “is that once cleaners fill out the form, we give them their ratings and give them an itemized list: ‘Here are some things you can do….’”

She says no cleaner can earn a five-leaf rating while using PERC, but adds that new equipment is expensive and smaller steps deserve recognition, too. The GCC website offers a state-by-state listing of its certified green cleaners—yet many states still have none listed. The EPA provides another, more comprehensive, greener cleaners guide, which lists CO2 cleaners and wet cleaners by state.

A Florida-based company, Sudsies, exemplifies the kind of entrepreneurs who have taken up the green cleaning challenge. It has earned a four-leaf rating by offering wet cleaning and instituting a recycling program. (See Sudsies.com.)

“We use plastic hangers made from recycled plastic that can also be recycled,” says Sudsies CEO Jason Loeb. The company also has reduced paper and plastic bag use and prints its brochures on recycled paper.

With the economy down, Loeb says it’s a tough time for the industry to take major green steps, so incremental ones may be the order of the day. He observes, “For now, most of those with the time and money to invest in eco-friendly practices limit their investment to the use of a particular dry cleaning solvent, rather than moving to evaluate all areas of their environmental impact.”

The Green Cleaners Council’s mission to evaluate more cleaners should spark more widespread interest while helping customers to readily differentiate the green-in-name-only cleaners from those committed to cleaning clothes in a whole new way. It’s up to us to create demand.

Brita Belli is the editor of E – The Environmental Magazine.