Are There Green Drycleaning Methods?
Last updated April 2020
Perchloroethylene (or “perc”) remains by far the most common drycleaning solvent used nationwide. But because it can be a hazardous air pollutant and is a likely human carcinogen, the EPA has instituted rules governing perc emissions. As a result, drycleaners located in residential buildings or near sensitive populations (such as nursing homes or daycare centers) can no longer use perc-based machines. And all drycleaners have had to reduce perc emissions by using newer equipment with lower perc emissions or employing different cleaning techniques. California and some local governments have further curtailed, or even banned, the use of perc. King County has a grant program that offers drycleaners up to $20,000 to switch to non-perc machines.
As cleaners replace old equipment, many are turning to hydrocarbon-based solvents. But even though some shops tout them as “organic” products, hydrocarbon-based solvents are not exactly green alternatives. They are volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that contribute to smog and produce hazardous waste that, like perc, needs to be carefully controlled and captured.
Another alternative to perc is machines that use liquid silicone, which is a process and solvent marketed as GreenEarth. Liquid silicone is a clear and odorless liquid similar to the basic ingredients used in underarm deodorants, cosmetics, and shaving lotions. But it might not be safe: While unlike perc and hydrocarbon-based solvents GreenEarth won’t pollute the air, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment found that it causes uterine tumors in rats. When introduced in 2000, this technique struggled to clean as well as perc, but several reformulations have greatly improved its performance.
If you’re looking for a drycleaner that for sure uses safe, environmentally friendly cleaning methods and solvents, you have a few options:
- “Wet-cleaning,” a non-toxic water-based cleaning method, has been used by many drycleaners for years, and so far is the most common replacement for perc-based machines. This process basically involves a high-tech washing machine that works in conjunction with stretching devices that help garments retain their size and shape.
- The CO2 method uses liquid carbon dioxide combined with a detergent. Although liquid carbon dioxide has little environmental impact—the carbon dioxide itself is recycled from other industrial uses—due to the high cost of equipment, very few shops have adopted this method.
Many shops position themselves as “green” cleaners, but, as you can see, often these claims are overblown. Although cleaners that use hydrocarbon-based solvents are probably doing better by the Earth and your health than those using perc, it’s not as if they’re really green do-gooders. Silicone/GreenEarth is environmentally friendly, but the cancer-in-rats thing is probably a concern for most of us. But overall it’s a good sign that a growing number of shops are at least trying out alternative methods.
Worried about harmful drycleaning chemicals? Ask drycleaners that you’re considering what they use. The more customers who tell shops they’re interested in alternatives to perc and hydrocarbon solvents, the more likely they are to invest in new equipment. For lists of local cleaners that use alternative methods, check with NoDryClean.com and GreenEarthCleaning.com.