Green is the New Black.
But do you know the true color of your dry cleaning?
To be sure, plenty of Madison Avenue types have overhyped and underwhelmed us with “green” claims about everything from food to fashion. But environmentalists, scientists, regulators, politicians, schools, health professionals and consumers all agree. We have no alternative but to find safe alternatives to the environmentally unsafe practices endangering our planet. So we all try to do our part by eating, shopping and living “green”. But how much do we really know about the green choices we are making?
When it comes to food, it’s easy to be green. We look for FDA regulated “organic” labels to assure us that no harmful chemicals have been used in its manufacture. Lately, more and more dry cleaners have been putting signs up in their windows advertising “organic” dry cleaning. Must be good, right?
Wrong. The term “organic” means something very different when it describes the chemicals used in dry cleaning. To a chemist, organic only means that a chemical contains a chain of carbon. Gasoline is organic, and so are most of the major dry cleaning solvents used by the industry for the last 150 years. Dry cleaners marketing their “organic” difference are counting on customers not understanding this difference. Simply put, you’re being green washed.
How can you be sure your dry cleaner is using a truly green cleaning method? Ask what process they use. There are five main types of cleaning processes in use today:
- Perchloroethylene, or perc, is the solvent used by more than 85 percent of dry cleaners in the United States today. As a petro-chemical, perc can accurately be labeled “organic”, but it is anything but healthy for people or the planet. Perc is classified by the EPA as a probable human cancer-causing chemical, and can cause dizziness, headaches, nausea, and irritations of the skin, eyes, nose and throat, as well as liver and kidney damage and cancer in humans. Perc is a “sinker”, which means it travels through concrete and soil. It doesn’t take much to cause contamination. The EPA standard is 5 ppb—about the same as an eye dropper of perc in an Olympic sized swimming pool. It happens more than you might think. According to Greenpeace, 70 percent of perc winds up in the air or in ground water. Perc has recently been banned from future use in California, and similar legislation is being considered in a number of other states.
- Hydrocarbon dry cleaning, commonly referred to as DF-2000 (a popular brand of petroleum solvent labeled as hydrocarbon), is frequently advertised as “organic”. While hydrocarbon dry cleaning is less dangerous than perc, it is not environmentally friendly. Hydrocarbons are classified as VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, meaning they are emitted into the air after they perform their function, and contribute to air pollution and global warming. Spills of hydrocarbon in water require a clean-up under the Oil Pollution Act (1990).
- CO2 cleaning is an environmentally safer alternative that utilizes a liquid form of CO2. Carbon dioxide is normally a gas at room temperature. But put under extremely high pressure (800 psi), it converts into a liquid and can act as a carrier of soaps much like water in a washing machine. When the dry cleaning cycle stops, the CO2 returns to a gas. CO2 cleaning utilizes reclaimed CO2; however, some CO2 is released back into the atmosphere during the cleaning process. Because the machinery is very expensive, CO2 cleaners are hard to find, and cleaning prices are usually quite a bit higher. There are approximately 35 dry cleaners in the United States using this methodology; to find one near you visit www.findco2.com. One caution. If a CO2 cleaner is using the recently introduced Solvair cleaning system, he is washing with glycol-ether. Glycol-ethers are a family of chemicals used in antifreeze and household cleaning products. Citing “proprietary” technology, Solvair will not disclose which glycol ether is being used, so there is no way to know the level of toxicity of this cleaning method. Glycol ethers are also VOCs (volatile organic compounds).
- Professional wet cleaning is an environmentally safer method of cleaning that uses water just like your home washing machine. Very few dry cleaners use wet cleaning on “dry clean only” garments because it takes more labor, time and skill than traditional methods and there is a concern for garment damage. If you find a 100% professional wet cleaner, be sure to ask if their detergents and pre spotting agents are also green. Wet cleaning machines drain straight into the city water system. If aggressive chemicals are used to remove stains, they may be toxic or have VOC properties, defeating the purpose of a green cleaning system. A directory of professional wet cleaners can be found at www.professionalwetcleaning.com. It is safe to assume that many of these locations do not clean 100% of garments using wet cleaning; it is a good idea to ask upfront.
- GreenEarth® is an environmentally friendly dry cleaning process that uses pure liquid silicone in place of hazardous chemicals. Silicone is clear, odorless, and non-toxic. When released to the environment, silicone returns to the three natural elements it is made from: sand and trace amounts of water and carbon dioxide. Used safely for decades as a base ingredient in shampoos, lotions and deodorants, silicone is a revolutionary technology in dry cleaning. The science behind GreenEarth not only makes it eco-friendly; but also more fabric friendly. Dye-bleed and color-fade common with other cleaning methods do not occur with silicone-based dry cleaning; it also imparts a softer, smoother “hand” to fabrics. Silicone is chemically inert, meaning it doesn’t interact with or damage fabric fibers during the cleaning process like other solvents. Another plus is that, unlike CO2 or wet cleaning, GreenEarth’s environmentally preferred process is not more expensive to operate with; costs are similar to traditional dry cleaning methods. There are approximately 700 GreenEarth Cleaning Affiliates in the United States; to find a GreenEarth certified location near you, visit www.greenearthcleaning.com
It can be confusing. Even the industry trade association makes it difficult to discern who is and isn’t green. Any dry cleaner, even a perc cleaner, can hang a sign certifying that they are a “Certified Environmental Dry Cleaner” as long as they pass a test certifying that they have the knowledge and ability to maintain their facility in an environmentally responsible way. Bottom line? There is no regulation of the term “organic” or “environmentally friendly” when applied to dry cleaning. Don’t rely on the signs in the window. Ask your dry cleaner to tell you exactly what process is being used.