Clothes are expensive — and we want them to last as long as possible. That's why dry cleaning has always been so popular.

You may not be able to pronounce tetrachloroethylene, but you know how it smells. It's the active ingredient in traditional dry cleaning solvent, and goes by the more common name of perc. But perc has become a big environmental problem. It's a known cancer-causing agent, and perc's composition makes it resistant to breaking down once it's spilled or released into city sewage systems. Up to half the United States' ground water is now tainted with perc. In Florida alone, 2,800 sites are being considered for cleanup at a cost of $1.4 billion USD.

States are finally moving to phase out the use of perc, but eco-conscious consumers needn't wait to take action. We've rounded up five alternatives to traditional dry cleaning. Find a couple that work for you, and help clean the environment and your wardrobe at the same time!

1) Find a progressive cleaner

Seek out a professional who offers non-perc dry cleaning. There are three popular alternatives right now: high-pressure cleaning using liquid carbon dioxide; silicone-based cleaners (known as GreenEarth cleaning); and high-tech, computer-controlled wet washing. Of the three, Consumer Reports found that liquid CO2 performed even better than old-style perc. GreenEarth was close behind. CR's testers were not impressed by the wet washing results. GreenEarth offers a convenient directory for locating an affiliated dry cleaner in your city.

2) Consider personal dry cleaning

Home dry cleaning kits — such as those manufactured under the Dryel brand by Procter and Gamble, and by Clorox as Fresh Care — are certainly not chemical-free, and you shouldn't expect results identical to professional cleaning. But they don't contain perc, and might be an alternative in areas without eco-friendly cleaners.

3) Opt for the washer

Modern washers with gentle cycles are often suitable for items you'd consider hand washing, such as cashmere. If you're planning to upgrade in your laundry room, consider a front-loading washer. They're more water-efficient than conventional models, and the money you'll save on laundering your own delicates will more than make up for the purchase price.

4) Steam away dirt and odors

Sometimes a little is enough: Steam clean lightly soiled articles in your dryer. Place delicates in the dryer with a damp colorfast towel and a scented sachet (for freshness). Run a normal cycle.

5) Re-evaluate your wardrobe

The best way to reduce dry cleaning pollution is to stop buying clothes which require it. With the tremendous variety of low-care fabrics available these days, thoughtful shopping can pay-off in reduced cleaning costs — and a lighter environmental footstep. Get into the habit of checking labels in the store, and press online merchants to disclose cleaning care requirements before you buy. Manufacturers respond to consumer demands — so be demanding when it comes to your clothing purchases! 

Have any other alternative dry cleaning ideas? Please share your tips in the Comments section!

Copyright Lighter Footstep 2008