Tuesday, March 19, 2013

What is Organic Dry Cleaning?

(Please excuse very sporadic blogging while I focus on I Dream of Jeannie Bottle Project.  But here's one offering.)

Well, after several hours of on-line research, here's what I've learned.  First of all, dry cleaning is not dry.  It uses non-water-based liquid solvents.  Also, surprisingly, the word "organic" here means nothing like what it does for food.  "Organic" as it relates to dry cleaning has the same meaning as in "organic chemistry."  It merely means that compounds containing carbon are involved.  Really that helps you not at all to know whether an establishment uses environmentally-friendly practices and processes.  And there is no widespread certification program to ensure that your dry cleaning is free of toxic chemicals.  Here's a quick primer on what you'll find out there and what to ask for.  (See this NYTimes article for a thorough review of dry cleaning issues and alternatives.)

About 85% of dry cleaners use a traditional solvent called perchloroethylene, PCE or perc, which has been linked to cancer and neurological troubles.  Its use and disposal are strictly regulated.  The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ordered that perc be phased out of all dry cleaners operating in residential buildings by 2020. By 2023, California plans to ban its use in all dry cleaning stores.
Most "organic" dry cleaners are signaling that they do not use perc (even though perc is also an organic compound).  When you see a dry cleaner that claims to be "organic," it may be using just slightly less toxic hydrocarbon or silicone-based solvents.  So "organic" does not necessarily indicate a wholesome process despite the association with organic fruits and vegetables.  You have to ask what process the cleaner proposes to use on your clothes this time.  (Some establishments use different methods depending on the fabric or stain.)  Hopefully your cleaner will offer wet-cleaning or CO2 systems.  ( More on these methods below.)

My own greenest to blackest scale for cleaning your clothes:

1. Buy clothes that do not require dry-cleaning.

2. Wet-clean your clothes at home and take them to a cleaner for pressing.

3. Find a cleaner who uses wet-cleaning with no other solvents. 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. Its benefits include "no hazardous chemical use, no hazardous waste generation, no air pollution and reduced potential for water and soil contamination. (According to this article on treehugger. com.)

4. Find a cleaner who uses a liquid carbon dioxide (CO2) dry cleaning system. Carbon dioxide (CO2) cleaning uses non-toxic, liquid CO2—the same form used to carbonate soda—as the cleaning solvent, along with detergent. The CO2 is captured as a by-product of existing industrial processes, thereby utilizing emissions that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere; since only about two percent of the CO2 is lost into the air with each load of clothing, its impact on global warming is minimal. CO2 cleaning also uses less energy than traditional dry cleaning, which involves heating the solvent.

5. You will also come across: Solvair (propylene glycol ether)- a petroleum-derived dry cleaning chemical that has fewer health and environmental downsides than those below.

6. Hydrocarbon (System K4) dry-cleaning and "GreenEarth" (silicone-based, siloxane or D-5) dry cleaning.  Though somewhat better than traditional perc cleaning, these methods also use potentially toxic solvents.  (EPA findings on siloxane.)

7. Traditional "perc" (perchloroethylene) dry cleaning.  The worst.  Perc is recognized by the EPA as a likely carcinogen. (See EPA Air Toxics Website entry. )

If you use any of these last three methods, consider removing the plastic bag and airing your clothes outside before bringing them into your home.
The Green Cleaner's Council also rates cleaners based on their recycling programs (hangers, plastic bags) and water and energy use.  The closest cleaner listed in their database is in Ashburn, VA though!

Reports are divided on which methods get your clothes "cleanest."  I have used Prestige Cleaners at 9420 Georgia Avenue (just south of the beltway) for wet-cleaning.  I thought  my clothes were wonderfully clean, but I had not given them a white shirt with a collar stain for example.   They were pricier than regular dry cleaning, but they offer a 15% discount if you pay upfront.

Below is the information I've been able to gather on some local cleaners with "organic" or "environmentally-friendly" in their advertising.  It is unreliable because, I have found, the person who takes your clothing or answers the phone usually cannot tell you what processes are used.  Please ask at your local cleaners and let me know what you find.  I'll update this when new information comes in.  Thanks, and good luck!

Name Address State, City Wet Cleaning CO2 "Solvair" Hydrocarbon/Silicone Notes
Ackerman´s  1823 Columbia Rd., NW Washington DC       X  
Cleveland Park Valet 3303 Connecticut Ave., NW Washington DC       X  
Custom cleaners 2637 Connecticut Ave., NW Washington DC       X  
DC dry cleaners 1856 Columbia Rd., NW Washington DC       ? "organic solvents-- PDS
French dry cleaners 3706 14th St., NW Washington DC       X  
Georgetown Valet 1100 13th St., NW Washington DC       ?  
Georgetown Valet 405 H St., NE Washington DC X     ?  
Georgetown Valet 301 8th St., NE Washington DC       X  
Sun cleaners 1408 14th St., NW Washington DC       X  
Swift cleaners 1700 R St., NW Washington DC       X  
Taesis cleaners 1115 U St., NW Washington DC       ?  
The Cleaners 300 E St., SW Washington DC       ? "organic solvents"
U St cleaners 1513 U St., NW Washington DC       X  
Prestige Expert Fabricare 9420 Georgia Ave. Silver Spring, MD X     X  
Carriage House Cleaners 7308 Carroll Ave. Takoma Park, MD       X