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How "Organic" Is Organic Dry Cleaning?

Posted Jan 04 2010 8:50am

Organic drycleaners Are "organic" dry cleaners popping up in your neighborhood?

Are they legit, or another greenwashing scam? Here's the low-down:

What Makes A Dry Cleaner Green?

It's not PERC.

Just because a dry cleaner claims to be "organic" doesn't mean it's free of toxic chemicals. That's because, scientifically speaking, any chemical is considered to be organic if it contains carbon. So even cleaners that use a solvent like perchloroethylene (PERC), which has been classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a probable human carcinogen, can claim to be organic. An ad for "green" dry cleaners doesn't necessarily mean much, either, since there is no standard definition for what makes cleaning green.

Hydrocarbon solvents are in the same boat. Hydrocarbon solvents are petroleum-based, says Sierra Club, and contribute to greenhouse gases by emitting volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Solvents to avoid are: DF2000, PureDry, EcoSolve, Shell Solution 140 HT and Stoddard.

And that GreenEarth method you may have seen around? It does not necessarily translate into 'green-for-the-earth.' GreenEarth cleaners replace PERC with a silicone-based solvent called methyl siloxane or D5, which is similar to the base ingredients used in deodorants and shaving creams. The solvent itself is currently considered safe for the environment because it degrades to sand, water, and carbon dioxide, says the Union of Concerned Scientists, but it has caused cancer in lab animals in EPA studies. In addition, it is manufactured using chlorine, which can generate harmful dioxin emissions.

The good news?

Safe, non-toxic alternatives do exist. And they are just as effective as traditional dry cleaning, minus the negative impacts on the environment.

  • Wet-cleaning replaces PERC with carefully controlled amounts of water and special non-toxic biodegradable detergents. Computer-operated equipment helps ensure that your delicate fabrics are cleaned without the risks to human health or the environment. You can find more details here.
  • Carbon dioxide (CO2) cleaning relies on high pressure to convert carbon dioxide gas into liquid that acts as a carrier for biodegradable soaps. When the washing is complete, the pressure is released, turning the CO2 back into a gas to be used again and again. One drawback: the requisite machinery is expensive, so this method costs more than PERC-based dry cleaning.

If you want to locate the nearest reliably green cleaner, check out this national directory recently published by Occidental College.

The U.S. EPA also offers a nationwide list of CO2 and wet cleaners that was compiled in 2003.

Handwash Keep in mind that not all "dry clean only" garments need to be professionally dry-cleaned. Green living expert and Care2.com editor Annie Bond provides safe, eco-friendly instructions on hand-washing silk, wool and rayon clothing, here. My daughter regularly washes her wool sweaters on the cold, delicate cycle in the washing machine, then line dries them. Cheap, effective.

The most obvious solution of all? Transition your wardrobe to wash-and-wear clothing that requires no dry cleaning. You'll save money on cleaning bills and breathe easier knowing you're reducing your exposure to questionable chemicals.

BONUS: Discover easy, simple ways to clean out your closet this season, and how your wardrobe transition can make a world of a difference, here.

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