Hold your nose. That chemical odor that accompanies plastic-wrapped, newly dry-cleaned clothes is sparking health and environmental concerns from the Environmental Protection Agency. “Consumers need to be aware that the solvents used in dry cleaning, particularly perchloroethylene (PERC), represent significant hazards to the health and environment in a community, including people who work at dry cleaning facilities, people who breathe the air near those cleaners, and people who have their clothes cleaned,” says Robert Gottlieb, Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy at Occidental College.
“Consumers should also be aware that there are more environmentally friendly alternatives like professional wet cleaning that are comparable in cost and in their ability to clean the full range of garments.”
Despite such alternatives, the Centers for Disease Control estimate 85 percent of dry cleaners in the United States are still using PERC as their primary solvent. “New machines are a major investment and dry cleaning companies are just beginning to find out about alternatives,” says Angela Namkoong, an outreach coordinator with the Garment Care Project at Occidental College.
Professional wet cleaning, which uses biodegradable detergents and special equipment, is the most readily available greener option, but CO2 cleaning, which uses carbon dioxide as a liquid solvent, is the preferred choice, according to the results of a Consumer Reports magazine survey.
But you may not want to shun your local laundry just yet. Marin County still doesn’t have a dry cleaner offering a CO2 process, though such franchises, like the design-savvy Hangers Cleaners, are creeping up the coast. For the next-best choice, try a company that offers a wet cleaning service, such as Belvedere and Mill Valley’s Vogue Cleaners and Alex’s Dry Cleaning Valet in San Rafael, a delivery-only service that uses hybrid vehicles.
If using a green alternative isn’t an option, the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College suggests not accepting clothes back from your cleaner if they have a strong chemical smell (which means they were overdosed with PERC), airing the clothes out to dissipate any fumes from harmful solvent, and encouraging your dry cleaner to look into alternative cleaning methods.