Sustainability 101

Everything You Need to Know About Dry Cleaning and the Environment

Talia Vicars
Airing Out The Dirty Laundry

Dry cleaners have a familiar consistency: they always smell the same and have rows of winter coats, fancy dresses, pantsuits, and the occasional duvet cover wrapped in plastic coverings, crinkling as they zip around the conveyor belt system. Not to mention, that neon green sign outside that almost always reads ‘eco-friendly.’ While some of us may never have stepped foot into a dry cleaners before, the likelihood that you’ve walked or driven by one is probably high and, if you’re like us, you’re questioning how ‘eco-friendly’ the process really is behind that sign. After all, that lovely, vintage cashmere sweater from the thrift store says to either wash it by hand or to take it to the dry cleaners. With a spaghetti sauce stain that big, it’s probably a better bet to just take it in...but what’s actually going on behind that conveyor belt system? How do they magically get out stains that have been crusted on so long they just seem like part of the pattern? Come along to learn about laundry’s bougie cousin. 

BEFORE WE GET DOWN TO IT...

Let’s talk about the loose misnomer of ‘dry’ cleaning. Dry cleaning is a process that cleans by immersing items in liquid chemical solvents. While alternative liquids are used, no water is used in the process, so it is considered ‘dry’. Let’s not get into the whole ‘is water wet’ debate, though. We don’t have time for that today and, quite honestly, we think it’s about as silly as the blue vs. white striped dress debacle of 2015 (but, if you’re asking us, it is definitely blue). 

THE STINKY HISTORY OF DRY CLEANING

Where did it all start? We’re so glad you asked. Dry cleaning has been around for a while and so have the related liquids, which used to be smelly for a slightly less sanitary reason.

The original and earliest pioneers of cleaning fabrics without water dates back to Ancient Rome in the ruins of Pompeii in 79 AD...so 1,942 years ago. Romans would use clay mixed with lye and ammonia (think: pee) to get stains out of clothes. This process was so popular that there was a tax on collecting urine. Fast forward to 1821, when Thomas Jennings, a Black tailor in New York City invented dry scouring, a process most simply described as scrubbing fabrics without water. As the first Black person to get a patent and the inventor of the precursor to the modern dry cleaning we know today, we give Jennings a round of applause (clap with us now). Unfortunately, a fire in 1836 destroyed the paperwork to his patent and because this was before the digital records of the internet, Jennings is often not credited for his invention. Fast forward a little more to 1855, when the maid of the French dye-worker, Jean-Baptiste Jolly, accidentally knocked over a kerosine lamp onto his table cloth. Once the kerosene had dried, Jolly noticed that the cloth was much cleaner than it was previously, so he started to dump kerosene on other people’s clothing and called it ‘dry cleaning!’ Ah, yes, the magic of accidents. 

Moral of the story? Clumsiness should be welcomed and celebrated. Who knows, knocking over the shampoo in the shower could be the next multi-million dollar industry. So, how did we get from ammonia to dry scouring to kerosene, to where we are now? We know that our dry-cleaned clothes don’t smell like pee OR lighter fluid, so some things have to be different...

MODERN DRY CLEANING

While we have evolved past the use of turpentine, kerosene, gasoline, and petrol as solvents in the process of dry cleaning clothes, there’s still some pretty suspicious stuff used for cleaning. But, even though we can’t use perchloroethylene, or perc (no, not like in the Future, Mask Off, way), to clean paint brushes or fuel our cars, it is a popular solvent for dry cleaning and has been for over 80 years. Outside of not being flammable like the aforementioned solvents, perc cleans clothes 75% faster compared to other popular solvents. 

THE PLANET

The Sacred Text for chemists that want to do right by people and the planet is called the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry (expect a lot of blog posts about this in the future). Principle #4 says: “Thou shalt not use solvents in chemical reactions, and if you do, thou shalt make sure they are safe.” Okay, we paraphrased that one a bit, but the point still stands. No solvents is the best way to protect people and the planet, but when we can’t do that, we better make sure our solvents are safe. By that logic, perc is a Green Chemists’ worst nightmare. 

Perc that is spilled on the ground or poorly disposed of can easily find its way through concrete, through rocks and soil, and into groundwater. In fact, groundwater pollution by perc is so rampant that 50% of active EPA Superfund Sites in the US have land and water that has been contaminated by perc. (What does this mean? The CERCLA program, better known as Superfund, is an EPA program created to investigate and clean up sites contaminated by major hazardous chemical spills and waste.) To make things even worse, perc can also evaporate, or become airborne as a toxic by-product

Even with all of these problems, the use of perc is still relatively common. In the United States, about 70% of all dry cleaners use perc. Perc alone is pretty bad, but what about all of the plastic wrapping and ‘disposable’ hangers? Most of those wrappings are made of low-density polyethylene plastics, or LDPE plastics for short. Because LDPE is more likely to float to the surface of the ocean than other plastics, they have more time to degrade into microplastics. Seems like a remix to a bad single-use plastic song we’ve been humming a lot lately and it’s a tune we’re desperate to get out of our heads.

THE PEOPLE

What is bad for the planet is often likely bad for people. Since the 1970s, researchers have suspected that perc poses a danger to people in proximity to the chemical. Early studies indicated that perc is carcinogenic and while the link is more correlational than causational (anyone remember high school stats?), the American Cancer Society conducted studies that showed that workers consistently exposed to perc have increased rates of cancer, from lymphomas to cervical abnormalities. Like we just talked about, perc is a toxic air pollutant, so folks breathing it in are also more likely to have serious health effects like aggravated asthma. While extended exposure is more common for people working in dry-cleaning stores, it’s not limited to them. If we were to touch a perc-cleaned item of clothing that was improperly dried, it could trigger dizziness and blurred vision. Why? Because it's a neurotoxin. Convinced, yet?

“GREEN” DRY CLEANING

Based on our research, it seems that traditional dry cleaning can be pretty detrimental. This runs counter to the common practice of labeling dry cleaners as eco-friendly, or ‘green’. In true Finch fashion, we set out to debunk the jargon, blanket claims, and wishy-washy statements. So, where was this greenwashing born of? In the 1990s, after almost a century of widespread perc use, the EPA began to regulate dry cleaning chemicals in favor of less hazardous solvents. 

Introducing the use of the organic class of molecules, hydrocarbons, perc’s slower-working, less effective friend. Hydrocarbon solvents include DF-2000 (from the *cue sarcasm* environmental titan ExxonMobile), EcoSolv (from crowd fav Chevron Phillips), and Shell Sol (surprise, surprise, from Shell). What do all of these have in common? They’re from petrochemical companies, increase our reliance on fossil fuels, emit pollution, and therefore contribute significantly to climate change. We know what you are thinking: “Wait, didn’t you just say that these hydrocarbons are organic?” Well, yes we did, because, by the official chemical definition of the word “organic”, they contain carbon atoms, making them organic. Therefore, these chemicals are technically organic and technically naturally occurring, so dry cleaners may slap on ‘organic’ and/or ‘environmentally friendly’ labels. Very, very tricky. 

Another example of a well-labeled environmental fiend? GreenEarth®. Sounds good, huh? Notice that ®? That’s because it’s trademarked with a nice-sounding name despite the fact that it’s a very scary supervillain whose real name is decamethylcyclopentasiloxane (D5). We get it, though. GreenEarth® is more palatable. The Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment of California (OEHHA) found that D5 is also carcinogenic and can impact the nervous system, fat tissue, the liver, immune systems, and, if lit on fire, results in the formation of formaldehyde… which is the same chemical used to preserve animal specimens like your 7th-grade teacher’s frog in a jar. It also happens to be extremely toxic. Even more concerning is that D5 is a “persistent environmental contaminant” in air, water, sediments, and soil, meaning once it is released, it can stay in the environment for a looooong time (like, months or years). The more commonly it’s used by people in dry cleaning, the more it will show up in wildlife and fish. If we end up eating said fish, we’re going to be consuming D5 (we’ll introduce the concept of biomagnification another time). If a dry cleaner uses GreenEarth®, don’t let it fool you. There’s nothing ‘green’ about it. All of this for a freshly pressed shirt? We don’t think so. 

BUT HEY! MY DRESS SHIRTS ARE WRINKLY. WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO?

While washing clothing with *water* may feel so pre-79 AD, professional wet cleaning is a more environmentally conscious alternative and significantly less costly for business compared to traditional dry cleaning. No, we’re not asking you to just throw your grandmother’s fur coat into the washing machine. Wet cleaning uses exciting technology to ensure that clothes don't shrink or lose buttons, and gets them to that squeaky clean sheen we’re familiar with from the dry cleaners. The added bonus? Wastewater from wet cleaning facilities has little to no environmental impact and it totally satisfies the Principles of Green Chemistry we talked about earlier. We can all breathe a sigh of relief -- professional wet cleaning uses more energy-efficient, less toxic technology that produces far fewer emissions. Our return to (biodegradable!) soap and water washing is a welcome one.

And what about those throw-away plastic wrappings and single-use hangers? Find a dry cleaner near you that uses reusable hangers and wrappings (are these the next fad after reusable coffee cups?!).

In sum, the ins and outs of the dry cleaning industry are complex -- but, if you’ve been reading Finch’s Decoded blog for a while now, that’s kind of how these things go. Remember, D.A.R.E. to say no to percs!