Airing Our Dirty Laundry

Finding a dry cleaner in a foreign country is not always an easy task. With my new linen jacket draped over my arm, I walked in the shade of the palm trees past the tennis courts of the Hotel Prado. The dry cleaner was at the back. In Barranquilla, I could afford to buy linen and have my clothes made by a modista, or a seamstress. I used to spend hours shopping for fabric, lining and buttons. The luxury of having clothes custom made did, however, have a downside--cleaning. Although hand washing usually did the trick, on occasion I was forced to use the services of a dry cleaner.

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?

Further reading:
US Environmental Protection Agency, Info on Perc
EPA Wetcleaning Systems of Garment Care

Additional source:
Living Downstream: An Ecologist's Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment by Sandra Steingraber

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Mile-ender | July 10, 2010 at 11:00 PM

Don't believe the hype! The only truly eco way of cleaning clothing is by using water, or wet cleaning, and a true Clothing Cleaner, Stain removing master, can wet clean your clothes, press them and have them back to you in 3 to 4 hours, if not sooner.
AS for Hydroclene being eco friendly, all you need to do is click on the name in the article and read the spec sheet....sounds pretty unsafe, unhealthy and non eco friendly to me...causes skin irritation, burning eyes, hazardous if fumes breathed in, do not dispose or spill into get the picture....Only true Clothing cleaning masters. who have years of experience, cleaning knowledge, pressing skills and balls to take on wet cleaning and not BS the public about being 100% eco friendly, can truly be considered true alternatives to dry cleaning! There are a few more Clothing Cleaners in the area... I suggest you ask around about who can safely, and in a truly healthy way, for yourself and the planet, clean your clothes!

Heather | July 11, 2010 at 9:54 AM

If there are wet cleaners with the experience you claim please point them out to me.

I'd like to know about the wet cleaner who can get my clothes back to me in 3 to 4 hours. In my research, I learned that drying was the tricky part and often when the fibers shrink. There are one of two choices: dry with cold air or hanging the clothing to dry for a few days. I find it hard to believe that an Armani suit can be dried and pressed in 3 to 4 hours with zero shrinkage and look as good as new. So please prove me wrong! We will all be winners in the end.

Hydroclene like all the other hydrocarbons used in dry cleaning are SCARY and untested; that's why I included the spec. But until the public is aware of what is being used at dry cleaners, they aren't about to change their thinking any time soon. The public will still show up with an expensive suit and want it back in two hours. The public's expectations will only change with increased awareness--the point of this post.

Lastly, although many businesses would like to be eco-friendly, it still has to be approached with a business sense with the public's expectations factored in.

Thanks for your comment!

Anonymous | July 12, 2010 at 10:03 AM

Wet cleaning does not need days to turn around garments. They can be done in 3-4 hours. Certain garments are best if cleaned in other alternative green cleaning solvents and solutions, such as GreenEarth and Solvair Cleaning.

You can find more information on both cleaning options available on our website

Heather | July 12, 2010 at 4:06 PM

I'd like to know how you dry them so quickly. Do you use cold air?
As I mentioned above, the EPA has approved two environmentally friendly cleaning processes: wet cleaning and liquid CO2. The Solvair that you mentioned uses liquid C02, so you are right about that. But it also requires a signficant outlay of cash on new machinery.

Do you think enough consumers would pay that money to make it a sound business venture?

From what I gather, MotherEarth is a type of silicon, which has received some positive press at TreeHugger. It is apparently more environmentally friendly than hydrocarbons, but according to the D5 Fact Sheet, it still caused tumours in female rats. See here:

In addition, I found the spec online, and it requires the use of safety glasses and is a skin, eye and respiratory irritant. See here:

Thanks for your input. I'm always interested in learning more about cleaning products.

cyclosystem | October 17, 2014 at 1:10 AM

Awesome post! Thanks for sharing this valuable & informative information. I must say that you have done a commendable job with it! Keep it up!! Biodegradable Cleaning Solvent

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