A dyer once described his job to me as “being the first clothes recycler”. Although the description is not entirely accurate, I agree with his sentiment.
Every time I collect freshly ironed clothes from the dry cleaners, I find a renewed sense of pleasure in each garment. Considering the immense amount of resources required to produce clothes, anything that happily extends their lifespan is absolutely worth doing.
However, traditional dry cleaning methods can be harmful to the environment – or to you. Here, experts explain what to look for in a dry cleaner.
What is the problem ?
Like many things involving chemicals, dry cleaning has evolved over the decades from something that can be dangerous to something regulated to protect people and the environment.
The process involves a chemical solvent that clothes are washed in, without water, to remove dirt and stains. For a long time, perc (short for perchlorethylene, otherwise known as tetrachlorethylene) was the most common solvent used in dry cleaning. Perc caused liver and kidney damage, memory impairment, dizziness and headaches. It is also considered a potential carcinogen.
According to the Australian Industrial Chemicals Introduction Scheme (Aicis), the manufacture of perc in Australia stopped in 1991 and in the following years imports declined. But perc is still used by some Australian dry cleaners, although they must follow state and territory guidelines.
According to the chairman of the Dry-Cleaning Institute of Australia, Mark Ryan, “all solvents are safe to use when used in a well-maintained system and certified safe solvent-handling practices are in place.” This is in line with the Aicis stipulation that dry cleaning in Australia “can be regarded as essentially a closed process” (meaning emissions and waste disposal are carefully managed).
But Aicis says people working with the chemical can still be at risk depending on how it is transferred into the machine, how the filters are cleaned and how the waste is disposed of. Disposal of perc should always be done through a licensed waste contractor.
If you’re concerned about perc, the best thing to do is ask your dry cleaner about their processes.
A range of solvents
Ryan says solvents can be divided into two categories: chlorinated (perc) and non-chlorinated (Solvon K4, Hydrocarbon D60 and Green Earth). On your garment’s care label, a circle with a letter inside indicates that the garment can be dry cleaned, with each letter indicating which chemicals can be used: “A” means any solvent can be used, “P” means perc is ok to use, and “F” means petroleum based solvents only.
General manager of laundry equipment supplier Spencer Systems, Daniel Hays, says the most environmentally friendly solvents are Green Earth and Solvon K4, and of these two, Green Earth is the most common.
The green solvent
Fiona Miller and Nikita Williams of Green Dry Clean in Bathurst say Green Earth is a silicone-based solvent that is a by-product of sand, as opposed to solvents derived from petrochemicals.
Miller and Williams describe it as “gentle on clothes and gentle on the environment”. They say it leaves your clothes “smelling fresh and shinier” and it’s better for delicate fabrics, so it’s good for cleaning intricate items like lace and sequins.
Green Earth Silicone is made from an odorless and colorless solution, and when released into the environment, it degrades into sand, traces of water and carbon dioxide. But Miller and Williams say careful handling is still advised. “Our waste is collected in the solvent distillation process, cleaned once a week…put in a sealed container and disposed of according to industry standards,” they say.
What about wet cleaning?
Some green dry cleaners actually use a process that is not dry cleaning at all. This is called professional wet cleaning. Noble designer and co-founder Courtney Noble says professional wet cleaning uses water rather than chemicals, plus specialized detergents and conditioners through a computer-controlled washing machine.
“Then the washed fabrics are placed in a specialized dryer fitted with humidity sensors to ensure the fibers are protected, dye bleeding is prevented and the fabrics do not shrink,” she says.
It can be better for the environment than traditional dry cleaning if biodegradable and environmentally friendly detergents are used. But Ryan says, “Not using solvent is not dry cleaning. Whether [a dry-cleaner] wash something that says dry clean only [they] break the laws and leave [themselves] open to claims for civil damages.
In addition to the environmental impacts of the chemicals used, Hays says to look for dry cleaners that use alternative garment covers to soft plastics and have a hanger return or recycling program.
He points out that it “takes an enormous amount of energy to run a textile cleaning business,” so it’s worth considering whether your dry cleaner has energy-efficient machines or cleaning systems. renewable energy.
Technological advances are also important. Noble says, “Most green dry cleaners use computer-controlled machines that measure exactly how much water and cleaning time the garment will need.”
Miller and Williams have implemented a range of eco-friendly techniques such as environmental stain removal agents, biodegradable garment bags, LED lighting, solar panels and a water recirculation system.