Zero Waste

Is dry cleaning environmentally friendly?

This article is based off a gifted product I received from Clothes Doctor and enjoyed using. I was not asked to write this article and my views are my own.

As we try to reduce our waste, we often become more aware of taking better care of our belongings to help them last longer, reducing the amount of new items that need to be produced. In fact that is exactly what we have been talking about in this week's article on zero waste living, focussing on "making do and mending". When trying to look after clothes, the first step is often to consult the label for care instructions. But what if the garment is recommended "dry clean only"? Is that the best way to look after that item, and if not what are the alternatives? Is dry cleaning even environmentally friendly?

What is the impact of dry cleaning?

Obviously, dry cleaning tends to have an excessive amount of waste associated with it. If you have ever seen someone walk out of a dry cleaners carrying a bunch of shirts then you will understand. Most dry cleaners still provide a coat hanger and plastic bag with every dry cleaned item, so are generating a huge amount of plastic waste daily.

Dry cleaning, contrary to its name is not actually dry. It is a process that uses liquid solvents instead of water to clean clothes, by dissolving dirt, and the solvent is then removed using high heat. The most commonly used solvent is one called PERC (Perchloroethylene, /tetrachloroethylene/PCE etc.) (1) which is petroleum based, meaning it comes from fossil fuels. As derived from fossil fuels, which are a non-renewable resource and extremely energy intensive to isolate, they have a large negative environmental impact. The high heat needed when using PERC also has an environmental impact as requiring energy to generate.

PERC is a member of the chlorinated solvents family, and there is increasing concern about their use due to persistence in the environment because of their ability to bioaccumulate (2). So much so that PERC is banned in some countries. The breakdown products of PERC also have their risks to both humans and plant-life such as forests (2). Tetrachloroethylene is rated by the international agency for research on cancer as a "probable carcinogen"(3), which may not be as relevant by the time the dry-cleaned item reaches you, but it very relevant for people working within a dry cleaners daily, or living nearby. As it is a volatile chemical (can easily change from a liquid to a gas), is can easily pollute air and water nearby, which is where the majority of exposure to it comes from (4), and two thirds of the PERC used is released into the atmosphere (2).

So in general, dry cleaning is energy intensive, produces a considerable amount of physical waste, and uses chemicals that are not good for our health or environment.

So why do people use PERC?

Well, PERC is effective at cleaning clothes as it can dissolve many non-water soluble stains such as oils, grease and waxes, whilst its fast evaporation reduces the potential for shrinking of the garment. PERC is non-flammable and easily treated for reuse. However the high heat and solvents can actually damage some garment fibres over time.

Wet cleaning cannot remove non-water soluble stains so instead uses non-chlorinated solvents. It has a volume of water required to clean and a higher risk of shrinkage of the garment, however doesn't weaken most garments or cause bleeding of the garment dye. More modern techniques of wet cleaning reduce the risk of shrinking by controlling the humidity of the items or by drip-drying (2). Modern techniques are rivalling dry cleaning for their effectiveness.

What can I do instead of dry cleaning then?

Firstly, wash your clothes less, which is true for all clothing to reduce the environmental impact and keep your clothing stronger for longer.

  • Hang the clothes out to air between washes to refresh them
  • Spot clean any stains instead of washing
  • Brush to remove dirt with a lint brush
  • Hang in a humid bathroom to remove any wrinkles from wearing them.

Some items can actually be hand washed at home, with a little care and time, just not in a washing machine. This article from Clothes Doctor is really informative about what can and can't be washed at home. Hand washing liquids can be used to wash suitable garments at home. I was gifted some of Clothes Doctor's eco-clothing care range to try out and have been enjoying washing my pair of second hand silk trousers at home instead of dry cleaning them. I think this is a great alternative to having to get a specialist to clean clothes that actually can be washed at home, knowing that these products have been created by people who look after clothes for a living!

Unfortunately there are still some items that cannot be washed at home but thankfully there are other ways to clean them, such as steam cleaning or specialised wet cleaning from an ethical dry cleaner - if you're based in London, look up ethical cleaner BLANC.

So there you have it, why dry cleaning isn't actually dry, and really not so green either, but thankfully there are usually alternatives so lets just try to look after our clothes well to keep them lasting longer and longer!

Clothes Doctor is an online clothing maintenance service providing clothing repairs, alterations and restoration treatments to customers across the UK, and eco-friendly clothing care products. I have used their clothing repair and alteration service which was exceptional.

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