Green Resources Info Service and FAQs
Green Resources Info Service

Green Jean Ponzi is ready to answer your questions
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Green Resources FAQs

What are the greenest options for dry cleaning – and why should we seek them out?

According to the US EPA, as reported on the non-profit website, the dry cleaning industry offers two environmentally preferable alternatives, a cleaning process that uses liquid CO2 as a cleaning solvent and a wet cleaning process. The EPA explains, "Wet cleaning uses water, along with computer-controlled washers and dryers, specialized detergents that are milder than home laundry products, and professional pressing and finishing equipment."

Health concerns focus on perchloroethylene, the chemical most widely used in conventional dry cleaning. In laboratory studies, “perc” has been shown to cause cancer in animals. In EPA’s consumer cautions about products that emit Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), they say recent studies indicate that people breathe low levels of this chemical both in homes where dry-cleaned goods are stored and as they wear dry-cleaned clothing. Dry cleaners recapture the perchloroethylene during the dry-cleaning process so they can save money by re-using it, and they remove more of the chemical during the pressing and finishing processes. Some dry cleaners, however, do not remove as much “perc” as possible all of the time.

When using a conventional dry cleaner, take steps to minimize your “perc” exposure:

·         If dry-cleaned goods have a strong chemical odor when you pick them up, do not accept them until they have been properly dried.

·         If goods with a chemical odor are returned to you on subsequent visits, try a different dry cleaner.

One big Green option: evaluate your wardrobe. When do clothes really need to be dry-cleaned?

Apparel manufacturers can only cite one cleaning option on clothing labels, so they label to avoid being held liable for damage. (Really, are you gonna sue Target or Liz Claiborne if your top shrinks? How much energy, time and disposable income do you have?) Materials that could be hand-washed or even gentle-cycle machine washed are labeled Dry Clean Only because it’s the manufacturer’s safest choice, not because it’s the most effective (or healthiest) option for you.

Personal experience has not taken your Planet Doctor to the cleaners.  I can count on one hand the items I’ve taken to a dry cleaners over 30 years. I do wish I had hand-washed, not gentle-cycle/Woolite machine washed, my royal blue boiled wool vest last winter - it did shrink just a tiny bit - and I have two textured silk shirts I’ll take to a cleaners when they need it (I don’t run marathons in them). The items I want to take SPECIAL care of, I hand-wash in cold water and Woolite. Most delicates I’m Ok with machine-washing cold gentle cycle with Woolite, and they do fine. Including wool sweaters. With wool, though, you always run the risk of a little shrinkage with even a little agitation. It’s the motion that shrinks, not the moisture or detergent. I don’t own leather or suede items, but they are materials that should only be professionally cleaned.

Many people send clothing to the cleaners to get items pressed as well as cleaned. Jeans? Yes, I guess so. That’s a lot of expense, in my view. Shirts for professionals – well, who personally irons their shirts anymore? You can, I did. When I wash my cotton shirts – including the kind typically sent out for pressing, I tumble them in the dryer for a few minutes to take out the washing wrinkles, then hang them to dry. I stretch and flatten out the collars and plackets and while these shirts are not knife-pressed, they do come out nicely clean and not wrinkled. Ditto for skirts, and all my tops go through this process, then I hang them on the clothes line to air dry.

Choosing clothing that doesn’t need to be dry-cleaned, for cost-savings as well as environmental impact, sure makes the most sense to me. Even fine fabrics like silks, linens, woolens, can be cleaned at home with a little care and good sense about what the fabric is and how it behaves.

In St. Louis, as of fall 2015, the only “Green Dry Cleaning” business we know of is Banner Cleaners on Brentwood advertising wet cleaning.

Be wary of other “green” claims. In researching this post, I reviewed a cleaning outfit that advertises Green Cleaning – and has an unvalidated Green Earth Seal posted about it - but their brochure says the process uses liquid silicon. This is not one of the methods EPA cites, so I wouldn’t drive out of my way or pay a premium fee for it.

Answers provided by:

Jean Ponzi
Green Resources Manager, EarthWays Center of the Missouri Botanical Garden
  Marcus G. Rivas
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Learn more from Marcus "Dr. Detox" Rivas on how to "Detox Your Domicile"
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  • Energy in Buildings: Clean, Green, Economical
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