The old wives' almanac advises cleaning winter clothes before putting them away; moths, for one, are drawn to dirt spots. Our guilty secret is doing both at once by "storing" our coats at the cleaner's for the 60 days or so before they'd be thrown out. We also waited to inhale, as best we could, until we left the shop, which was redolent with the sickly sweet fumes of "perc," or perchloroethylene, the drycleaning solvent. Perc, a nervous system toxin and probable human carcinogen, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has been linked to headaches, nausea and reproductive problems. So, why is it still used in 85 percent of dry cleaning shops?
We suspect that the chemical may have paralyzed the will of its captives, who are forced to perpetuate it by continued use. Not only that, dry cleaning isn't really dry at all: A persistent volatile organic compound, perc gets carried into homes on drycleaned clothes, where it releases its toxic miasma from within the plastic bag. Happily for workers and consumers alike, there are healthier, greener alternatives, as follows.
1) Dare to wash it yourself in cold water on a gentle cycle or by hand. Unless it's a tailored or very heavy item, such as a coat or jacket with shoulderpads that should be hand-blocked into its original shape by a pro, a home wash and dry, pressing sweaters flat between towels on a rack, should work fine.
2) Choose cleaners that don't use perc. These include "wet" cleaning, a water-based process using greener laundry detergents, and liquid carbon dioxide (CO2), which is also used to decaffeinate coffee. Note, this is "good" CO2 taken from other industrial process, and thus kept from entering and warming Earth's atmosphere.For EPA's list of wet and CO2 cleaners in your state, click here.
3) Hydrocarbon (a petroleum-based solvent that's not as toxic as perc, but produces greenhouse gases) and silicone (using a solvent called siloxane, or D-5, which doesn't contaminate clothes but is chlorine-based and releases cancer-causing dioxins in its manufacture) are just slightly greener options, if you're in a pinch.
4) Watch out for greenwashing, literally, signs that say "green" or "eco" cleaners without specifying one of the two EPA-approved methods above.
5) Do recycle the steel clotheshangers. Steel is the most recyclable metal. Or take them back to the shop, where your cleaner will gladly reuse them now that the U.S. has slapped high tariffs on steel from China, which has trebled cleaners' costs.
This article originally appeared in Plenty in April 2008. The story was added to MNN.com.