A dry-cleaner once described their job to me as “being the original recycler of clothes”. While the description may not be entirely accurate, I agree with its sentiment.
Whenever I collect freshly pressed clothes from the dry-cleaners, I find a renewed sense of enjoyment in each garment. Given the immense amount of resources it takes to produce clothes, anything that joyfully extends the life of them is absolutely worth doing.
However, traditional methods of dry-cleaning can be bad for the environment – or for you. Here, experts explain what to look for in a dry-cleaner.
What’s the rub?
Like many things involving chemicals, dry-cleaning has evolved over decades from something that can be hazardous to something regulated to protect people and the environment.
The process involves a chemical solvent that garments are washed in, without water, to remove dirt and stains. For a long time, perc (short for perchlorethylene, otherwise known as tetrachloroethylene) was the most commonly used solvent in dry-cleaning. Perc has been found to cause damage to the liver and kidneys, impaired memory, dizziness and headaches. It is also considered a potential carcinogen.
According to the Australian Industrial Chemicals Introduction Scheme (Aicis), manufacturing of perc in Australia stopped in 1991 and in the following years, imports decreased. But perc is still used by some Australian dry-cleaners although they must follow state and territory guidelines.
According to the vice-president of the Dry-Cleaning Institute of Australia, Mark Ryan, “all solvents are safe to use when operated in a well-maintained system and certified safe handling of solvent practices are in place”. This is in line with Aicis’s stipulation that dry-cleaning in Australia “can be viewed as essentially an enclosed process” (meaning emissions and waste disposal are carefully managed).
But Aicis says people working with the chemical may still be at risk depending on how it’s transferred to the machine, how filters are cleaned and how waste is removed. Disposal of perc should always be through a licensed waste contractor.
If you are concerned about perc, the best thing you can do is ask your dry-cleaner about their processes.
A spectrum of solvents
Ryan says solvents can be divided into two categories: chlorinated (perc) and non-chlorinated (Solvon K4, Hydrocarbon D60 and Green Earth). On your garment’s care label, a circle with a letter inside it indicates the garment can be dry-cleaned, with each letter denoting what chemicals can be used: “A” means any solvent can be used, “P” means any solvent except perc , and “F” means only petroleum-based solvents.
The managing director of laundry equipment supplier Spencer Systems, Daniel Hays, says the most environmentally friendly solvents are Green Earth and Solvon K4, and that of these two, Green Earth is the most common.
The green solvent
Fiona Miller and Nikita Williams of the Green Dry Clean in Bathurst say Green Earth is a silicone-based solvent that is a by-product of sand, as opposed to solvents derived from petrochemicals.
Miller and Williams describe it as “gentle on clothes and gentle on the environment”. They say it leaves your clothes “smelling fresh and looking brighter” and that it is better for delicates so it is good for cleaning intricate items like lace and sequins.
The silicone Green Earth is made from is an odorless and colorless solution, and when it is released into the environment it degrades into sand, trace amounts of water and carbon dioxide. But Miller and Williams say careful handling of it is still advised. “Our waste is collected in the distillation process of the solvent, cleaned out once a week … put in a sealed container and disposed of according to industry standards,” they say.
What about wet cleaning?
Some eco dry-cleaners actually use a process that is not really dry-cleaning at all. It’s called professional wet cleaning. The designer and co-founder of Noble, Courtney Noble, says professional wet cleaning uses water rather than chemicals, along with specialized detergents and conditioners through a computer-controlled washing machine.
“Then the washed fabrics are placed in a specialized dryer equipped with moisture sensors to ensure the fibers are protected, dye bleeding is prevented and fabrics do not shrink,” she says.
This can be better for the environment than traditional dry-cleaning if biodegradable and environmentally friendly detergents are used. But Ryan says: “Not using solvent is not dry-cleaning. Yew [a dry-cleaner] washes something that says dry-clean only [they] are breaching the laws and leaving [themselves] open to civil damages claims.”
Aside from the environmental impacts of the chemicals used, Hays says to look for dry-cleaners who use alternative garment covers to soft plastics and have a hanger return or recycling program.
He points out that it “takes a massive amount of energy to run a textile cleaning business”, so it’s worth asking if your dry-cleaner has low energy machinery or renewable energy systems in place.
Advances in technology are also important. Noble says: “Most eco dry-cleaners will use computer-controlled machines which measure exactly how much water and cleaning time the garment will need.”
Miller and Williams have a range of environmentally friendly techniques in place like environmental spotting agents, biodegradable garments bags, LED lighting, solar panels and a recirculating water system.