“Dry-cleaning,” the practice of using chemical solvents to remove dirt and stains from clothing, first appeared in the mid-1800s. Early dry-cleaners used petroleum-based chemicals such as gasoline and kerosene. These solvents were highly flammable and caused many fires and explosions, leading to government regulation of the industry. Around the mid-1930s, tetrachloroethylene (perchloroethylene) became the industry standard, and it is still in use today. “Perc,” as it is widely known, is nonflammable and gentler to fabrics, but is also the first chemical to be classified as a carcinogen and is highly toxic to soil, water, and the atmosphere as well.
But did you know that many items of clothing in your wardrobe marked “dry-clean only” can actually be hand-washed? Modern-day clothing manufacturers are required to recommend one cleaning method (not all acceptable methods) on their garments, and many items are marked “dry-clean only” to release the manufacturer from the liability of washing mishaps. Generally, garments made of natural fibers such as cotton, linen, silk, hemp, bamboo, and ramie will wash well. Wool is notorious for shrinking, even in cold water, and rayon is unpredictable, although many rayon garments wash well, even repeatedly. Vintage garments will most likely hold up to careful hand-washing, since they were probably washed in the past. If you do decide to wash at home, always hand wash in cold water with a gentle cleanser or an oxygenated cleaner to lift dirt and stains. Never use bleach or fabric softener. Don’t rub, twist, or wring delicate garments; instead, soak for at least 15 minutes, then rinse well. Lay the item on a thick, dry towel and roll gently to remove moisture (repeat if necessary), then lay flat or hang to air dry.
Some fabric blends, acetate, leather, and structured garments might still require professional cleaning. But recent innovations in the industry provide “greener” alternatives. Check local businesses to see if you can find one that cleans with liquid silicone. It’s gentle to clothing, people, and the environment. Some dry-cleaners also use liquid carbon dioxide in combination with other cleaning agents for a greener clean (but ask if they use it with a Solvair machine—these machines use glycol ether—another toxic chemical—as a solvent). Beware of cleaners touting hydrocarbon as a green clean. Hydrocarbon is a petroleum-based solvent and a major source of greenhouse gases.
You can also ask your cleaner to professionally “wet clean” your garments—they’ll wash them in a special computerized washing machine using just water and biodegradable soap. Water-based stains can be treated according to the pH level of the stain, and oil-based stains can be removed using special pre-spotting solutions.
Call your local dry-cleaners to find out what chemicals they use. If they don't already use green cleaning practices, they may be willing to convert, if they get the notion it is something your community would get behind. They may also be able to apply for a grant to assist with the conversion process. Why not get the ball rolling in your community?