A Greener Option to Dry Cleaning: Celebrate P2 Week!

By Lorne LaMonica

Professional Wet Cleaning (PWC) is a method of garment cleaning that uses water, a gentle washing machine, biodegradable soaps and conditioners, and specialized drying and pressing equipment.  The U.S. Environmental Agency (EPA) recognizes PWC as an example of an environmentally preferable technology that can effectively clean garments.

There are around 2,000 dry cleaners in the state, with the largest concentration located in the New York City metro area. Of these, approximately 80% use percloroethylene (“perc”), and the remaining use a solvent other than perc. Throughout New York State, only nine facilities currently use wet cleaning. It is estimated that New York State drycleaners use approximately 137,000 gallons of perc each year, of which 131 tons of perc per year are emitted to the atmosphere.

EPA has determined that perc is a “likely human carcinogen.” People exposed to high levels of perc, even for brief periods, may experience serious symptoms including: dizziness, fatigue, headaches, confusion, nausea, and skin, lung, eye and mucous membrane irritation.

What can I do to help reduce environmental and health risks from dry cleaning?

The most important thing you can do is to choose a high quality cleaner who acts responsibly toward the environment. Most professional dry cleaners are experts in fabric are and are already familiar with these issues. They will be able to advise you on whether or not your garments can be successfully cleaned in new cleaning processes. Some specific things you can do include:

  • Know what you are buying. Learn about cleaning processes and know what options are available to you from your local professional cleaners.
  • Ask your cleaner about cleaning methods, safety and maintenance practices, and how s/he handles solvent waste streams.
  • Bring your clothes to a professional cleaner who carefully follows safety requirements, and properly maintains cleaning equipment.
  • If your professional cleaner offers a wet cleaning process as an option, consider asking your cleaner to wet clean your clothes.
  • Help your cleaner determine the best way to clean your clothes by describing how they were soiled (e.g., food, ink, make-up), and by giving your cleaner the fabric content information off the care labels if you remove the labels for any reason.
  • If you smell solvent when you enter a cleaning shop, you might want to consider going somewhere else as solvent odors can indicate improper processing or solvent use.
  • If you think all of the solvent was not removed, or if your newly dry cleaned clothes smell like solvent, ask your cleaner to re-process your order or take them to another cleaner for re-cleaning.

Where can I get additional information about PWC?

EPA: http://www.epa.gov/dfe/pubs/garment/wsgc/wetclean.htm

New York State Pollution Prevention Institute: http://www.rit.edu/affiliate/nysp2i/garment-cleaning

About the author: Lorne LaMonica is a senior Environmental Scientist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Mr. LaMonica has been with the EPA for over 20 years and has worked in many of EPA’s environmental programs, including its hazardous waste, NEPA, and State Revolving Fund programs.  Lorne is the Region 2 Liasion for the national EPA WaterSense program, a contributing web content author, and is a Project Officer for several grants under the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and Pollution Prevention grants programs. Lorne works in the Pollution Prevention and Climate Change Section in EPA Region 2.

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