First the bad news. Dry-cleaning fluid (Tetrachloroethene, also known as perchloroethylene or “perc”) has been classified as a probable human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. It has also been classified as a hazardous air contaminant by the Environmental Protection Agency, and has been shown to cause menstrual irregularities, fertility problems, and miscarriages in women who work in the dry cleaning industry. It’s a central nervous system depressant and a soil contaminant that is considered more difficult to clean up than oil spills.
Then there are all those plastic bags. It’s hair-raising just to think about the waste stream generated by the dry cleaning industry.
Now some good news. There are alternative cleaning methods, such as hydrocarbon solvents and wet cleaning, which uses water and biodegradable soap. These “green” methods are not yet industry-wide, though, and may be thin on the ground outside major cities.
Some more good news. There is also “Dry Greening,” a movement focussed on getting rid of all those plastic bags. While some dry cleaners offer recycling of bags and hangers to reduce waste, there are also companies out there selling reusable fabric bags that double as laundry duffles for carrying soiled clothing to the cleaners and then turn into hanging garment bags for carrying clean clothes home again. (See drygreening.com and thegreengarmento.com)
How to make this even simpler? Be brave and use your washing machine. It’s what I’ve done every since I picked up my daughter’s wool duffle coat from the cleaners and discovered that the top toggle button had been broken in two. The cleaners told me it was “Not their fault” so, when I got home, I ran the already-compromised coat through my washer’s wool cycle to see what would happen. It came out fine, of course, and needed only a quick touch-up ironing. I haven’t been back to the cleaners since.
I realized immediately that I could not only save money this way, I could save on chemicals. It turns out most garments that say “Dry clean only” can be laundered at home. Buy carefully. Look for clothes that will wash well at home. Stay away from fiddly fabrics, beads, and sequins. Turn garments inside-out before washing or put them in zippered fine-washables bags before they go into the machine. Wash using the wool or gentle cycle on your machine, then air dry garments to avoid dryer shrinkage. You can also hand wash garments in the sink and then spin dry them in your washer before hanging them up to dry.
I haven’t yet found a way to clean men’s suits at home, but I’m working on it…