I walked into the shop to the hum of machines, billowing protective plastic sheets and that distinctive smell that impregnates the air at dry cleaners. In Canada, I had read that this smell was dry cleaning fluid, Perchloroethylene (PCE), more commonly known as perc. A powerful degreaser, perc is a synthetic solvent that evaporates at room temperature and has been used in dry cleaning since the 1930s. Although an effective stain remover, perc is also highly toxic. In fact, dry cleaners are two times more likely than the general population to develop bladder and esophageal cancers. Aware that dry cleaning fluid was a probable carcinogen (NB: in California, PCE is considered a known carcinogen), I was guilt-stricken about taking my clothes to the dry cleaner, and to my horror, the beautiful dark-haired woman who walked over to serve me was 7 months pregnant.
Try as I may, it's impossible to completely avoid the dry cleaner. At some point in our lives, we all own clothes with Dry Clean Only tags. What are our alternatives?
Recently, I came across a green dry cleaner at 251 Bernard West in Montreal. Owner James Bitzilos has been operating his green dry cleaning shop for three years and is one of the few Montreal dry cleaners to offer both wet and dry cleaning. Following in his father's footsteps, Bitzilos has been in the business for 20 years and knows the ins and outs of stain removal.
My first question for our green cleaner was about all the plastic he used. Bitzilos said that he opts for Oxo biodegradable plastic clothing bags, which break down in 18 to 22 months. I noticed that this type of plastic had a slightly greenish tinge. He also sells reusable garment bags for about $8.00.
Green dry cleaners usually use wet cleaning instead of dry cleaning for a large percentage of their business. Wet cleaning involves using water and biodegradable soaps.
"The only problem with wet cleaning is the turnaround time," said Bitzilos. "It takes a couple of days for the clothes to dry, and people want their clothes back before then, so to remain competitive I offer a dry cleaning service too."
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, wet cleaning is one of the safest professional cleaning methods available. Bitzilos made it abundantly clear that the dry cleaning he offers is perc-free. Then I asked him if green dry cleaning was more expensive than conventional dry cleaning using perc.
"It costs the same," Bitzilos said.
I left scratching my head. I had read that green dry cleaners used liquid C02, and because the machines required for this type of cleaning were more expensive, the cost of the service was considerably higher than that of conventional dry cleaning.
I returned a few days later wringing my hands. Once I realized that Bitzilos was not using liquid C02, I had to ask our green cleaner what kind of dry cleaning fluid he was using. He wrote it down for me: Hydroclene, a hydrocarbon solvent manufactured by Caled. On the company Web site, Caled claims that its products are "environmentally safe" for both dry cleaners and their customers. In my research, I was unable to learn whether any testing had been conducted on Hydroclene to support this claim. However, I did find some information on Exxon's DF-2000, another hydrocarbon solvent used in the dry cleaning industry.
Not all cleaning methods advertised as “green” are as environmentally benign as they may seem. For example, a solvent called DF-2000 being touted as an “organic”dry cleaning fluid is actually a petroleum product. It is indeed organic in the same way gasoline and perc are organic: it contains a chain of carbon atoms. The word “organic” has a much different meaning when it comes to food that’s been certified organic by the USDA. Tree Hugger: "Are There Green Dry Cleaners?"
Under the U.S. EPA Design for the Environment program, the Agency advocates the use of wet cleaning and liquid C02 cleaning processes over the use of hydrocarbon solvents.
At any rate, I was still pleased to learn that we had a green cleaner in our neighbourhood that had switched over to wet cleaning, used biodegradable plastic and sold inexpensive reusable garment bags. Although many people will be satisfied that our cleaner uses perc-free dry cleaning fluid, I would rather see the proof first that this hydrocarbon is safe. Until then, I will either try not to buy any clothes with Dry Clean Only tags or eat very carefully.
Have you come across any tests on hydrocarbon solvents for dry cleaning?
US Environmental Protection Agency, Info on Perc
EPA Wetcleaning Systems of Garment Care
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