What do you do if you care about your health and the environment but your clothing labels specify "dry clean only"? As we all know from reading the likes of Grist.org, dry cleaning may be harmful to both the environment and humans because it uses the solvent perchloroethylene (PCE). While the use of PCE is strictly regulated, some studies have linked extended exposure with the solvent to cancer and neurological troubles like vision problems.
Walking around New York City I've noticed some cleaners advertising green or organic dry cleaning methods. And apparently I'm not the only one. A recent article in the New York Times warns dry cleaning customers that marketing claims are not always what they seem.
According to the article, there is no government process to certify what makes a dry cleaner green. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health says that about 85 percent of the nation's estimated 36,000 dry-cleaning shops still use PCE as their primary solvent.
This will hopefully change, however, as technology is becoming more readily available to replace the toxic chemicals. The environmentally preferable alternative to dry cleaning is wet cleaning, where garments are washed with water and biodegradable detergents in computerized machines. Most stains are water soluble and dry cleaning actually immerses clothes in a liquid solvent anyway. The quality of wet cleaning is therefore quite comparable, and should not cost more.
The problem with wet cleaning is that it requires training on new equipment and may potentially give cleaners a hard time for defying "dry clean only" labels. Furthermore, wet cleaning can damage heavy wools or suit jackets. Hopefully, new developments can solve this problem!
In the meantime, more dry cleaners are adding wet cleaning as an option. According to America's Best Cleaners, a trade association with its own quality certification program, some of its 26 affiliate cleaners already use wet cleaning for half to 70 percent of all garments.
Instead of having to avoid buying clothes with a "dry clean only" label, I hope that safe alternatives are made mandatory and that dry cleaning becomes more regulated.