Can Dry Cleaning be Green? (And how can you tell?)

ecofriendlydcNote: post updated 4/4/2013. See end of post.

If you’re a green shopper like me, you’ve probably been stuck in this bind: what do you do when it’s time to clean that “dry clean only” sweater? I know that regular cleaners are chemical and unhealthy, and I’ve seen a range of different eco-friendly alternatives. “Environmentally friendly,” “non-hazardous,” “biodegradable,” “organic,” they advertise. What does it all mean?

Unfortunately, while some cleaners are greener than others, these terms are largely unregulated. (You may recall that Organic has no meaning when applied to “non-agricultural” products.) So it’s easy for a company to get away with a green scam. Let’s dig into some background information first.

Dry cleaning is a dirty process. Traditionally, it involves “washing” clothing at medium temperature with a liquid solvent, usually perchloroethylene, also called “perc.” The clothing is then rinsed in another perc bath, spun dry, and heated so that the remaining perc evaporates.

Perc, unfortunately, is known to cause cancer in humans, and to be very hazardous in the environment. (California has banned it, though the ban won’t be in place until 2023.) It can contaminate air and water. That’s bad news for the workers, for the neighbors, for the region (as perc causes smog), and, of course, for the person actually wearing the sweater — you. One recent study showed that your clothes build up a little more perc with each trip to the cleaners.

drycleaning

So there’s nothing eco-friendly about traditional dry cleaning. (Don’t get us started on the plastic bags!) But what if something else was used instead of perc?

This is where it gets complicated. There are two types of primary alternatives: hydrocarbons like ExxonMobil’s DF-2000 or Chevron’s EcoSolv, and a chemical called liquid silicone or D5, trademarked as GreenEarth. Personally, my green-scam alarm bells go off whenever marketers sell a chemical by calling it “GreenEarth” (the full chemical name is decamethylcyclopentasiloxane).

Hydrocarbons and GreenEarth are not great alternatives. An official document from California’s Air Resources Board notes that both are linked to cancer in some lab studies. While an improvement over perc, they certainly shouldn’t be marketed as “non-toxic” or “eco-friendly.” In fact, six dry cleaners in California were busted earlier this year for using these alternatives, and making hyperbolic claims about how “green” and “safe” they are. [See update below for a note about this case]

So what’s a good eco-citizen to do? Luckily, there are a few good options that are starting to catch on. First, if you’re up for a little extra effort, try hand-washing at home. Silk, wool, and rayon will clean quite nicely! Find a gentle soap, use mildly warm water, and soak. Don’t stretch or wring out – hang or lay flat to dry. You can still take your clothes to a cleaner to be pressed, if you’d like.

Wet Cleaning in process

Wet cleaning in Sunnyvale, CA

But if you’d still like to take your clothes to a service, there are two options that are growing. Oddly enough, the dry cleaning solution may be so-called “wet cleaning.” Using good old water and soap, plus a very carefully controlled drying process to preserve size and shape, your clothes can end up just as spiffy. It’s healthy for workers, leaves your clothes without added toxic stuff, and doesn’t produce hazardous waste.

The other technology that’s catching on is CO2 cleaning. Using pressurized, liquid carbon dioxide, dirt is removed from clothing without other chemicals. Yes, the gas is a contributor to global warming, but it’s usually gas that would’ve been released from industrial processes anyway. And it’s non-toxic and leaves no residue.

Looking to stay green? Your best options are hand-wash at home, Wet Cleaning, or CO2 cleaning. 

All told, we think you shouldn’t have to be a chemistry expert to safely clean your clothes. No dry cleaner should be exposing workers and the environment to unsafe chemicals. And when something says “organic” or “earth-friendly,” you shouldn’t have to wonder whether you’re being scammed. So we’re glad to see states like California stepping up regulation: making it safer for everyone, and making it easier to be an eco-friendly consumer. Let’s push for similar measures across the country!

Update 4/4: The folks at GreenEarth cleaning wrote with a clarification: in Santa Monica, none of the implicated dry cleaners were actually using the GreenEarth process, though one was illegally using the GreenEarth trademark, despite cleaning with hydrocarbon. (Let that be a flag — ask questions!) In addition, they emphasize that several other regulatory bodies have found the chemical D5 to be acceptable, including Environment Canada, whose extensive report finds “D5 does not pose a danger to the environment.”

What to make of all this? Well, GreenEarth is a better solution than hydrocarbon, but as with most chemicals, questions remain about its effects. And it’s important to ask questions and be sure you’re not being scammed!

Agree? Disagree? Do you have a favorite method for cleaning, or have you dumped “dry-clean only” altogether? Let us know below.

Photo credit: David GoehringJeremy BrooksBoston Bill, and KQEDQuest via Flickr

5 thoughts on “Can Dry Cleaning be Green? (And how can you tell?)

  1. Lis

    Well I have to disagree with you Jeff. I began working in the drycleaning industry when GreenEarth became available as an alternative to toxic Perc. It is biodegradable (sand, water and trace CO2), the soil from dirty clothes is filtered by activated clay which can then be disposed of in ordinary garbage and the silicone cleaned and recycled for the next load of clothes. Our shop doesn’t smell. My staff love it, my customers love it and their clothes are clean fresh and bright. I also suggest that some of the reporting you mention is disingenuous to say the least.

    If you look at the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for GreenEarth you can find out the following:

    Trade name: Earth Clean GE

    Application of the substance / the preparation Drycleaning / Laundry

    Composition:GreenEarth Silicone siloxane

    Hazard description:Irritant liquid,Irritant

    U.S. Regulations

    EPA (Environmental Protection Agency)

    None of the ingredients is listed.

    IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer)

    None of the ingredients is listed.

    NTP (National Toxicology Program)

    None of the ingredients is listed.

    TLV (Threshold Limit Value established by ACGIH)

    None of the ingredients is listed.

    MAK (German Maximum Workplace Concentration)

    None of the ingredients is listed.

    NIOSH-Ca (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health)

    None of the ingredients is listed.

    OSHA-Ca (Occupational Safety & Health Administration)

    None of the ingredients is listed.

    SARA Section 355 (extremely hazardous substances)

    None of the ingredients is listed.

    SARA Section 313 (specific toxic chemical listings)

    None of the ingredients is listed.

    Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA):

    All ingredients are listed.

    California proposition 65:

    Prop 65 – Chemicals known to cause cancer

    None of the ingredients is listed.

    Prop 65 – Chemicals known to cause reproductive toxicity

    None of the ingredients is listed.

    Decamethylcyclopentasiloxane

    Rodents repeatedly exposed to decamthylcyclopentasiloxane (D5) via inhalation or ingestion developed increased liver weights relative to unexposed control animals. When the exposure was stopped, livers returned to normal. Microscopic examination of the liver cells did not show any evidence of pathology. Liver enlargement was due to an increase in metabolizing enzymes, and a temporary increase in the number and size of normal cells (hyperplasia and hypertrophy). These biochemical pathways are more sensitive in rodents than in humans. Inhalation exposures that are typical in industrial use (5-10 ppm) showed no toxic effects in rodents. A two-year combined chronic toxicity and carcinogenicity inhalation study was conducted with decamethylcyclopentasiloxane (D5) in Fisher-344 rats by whole body inhalation. A statistically significant increase in the trend for uterine endometrial tumors was observed in female rats exposed for 24 months at the highest dose level of 160 ppm. The same effects were not seen at the other dose levels of 10 and 40 ppm. No adverse effects were seen at male rats at any level. Whether or not this increase in incidence is truly related to the exposure to D5 is questionable and yet to be determined. Based on our present knowledge, it is unlikely that industrial, commercial, or consumer uses of products containing D5 would result in a significant risk to humans. The GE Recommended Exposure Guideline for D5 is 10 ppm.

    The California Air Resources Board is not fully truthful in its selective reporting (copied from their website below) of the facts as shown in the MSDS:

    GreenEarth® (Volatile Methyl Siloxane)

    Decamethylcyclopentasiloxane (D5) or volatile methyl siloxane is the ingredient present in the GreenEarth® dry clening solvent used inn multi-solvent machines. The ARB does not consider D5 to be a VOC. In 2007, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) conducted an evaluation of the available D5 information and concluded that exposures of D5 at the highest achievable vapor concentrations cause uterine tumors in rats. OEHHA is also concerned about the potential non-carcinogenic effects associated with D5 and its apparent persistence in the environment and animal and human tissues. However, available exposure information indicates that the use of D5 as an alternative dry cleaning solvent will not pose a risk to the public living near businesses using D5.

    I may be pendantic but my scientific background can’t accept substandard reporting and investigation, particularly when gross exaggeration is used.

    1. Jeff Gang

      Thanks for your comprehensive feedback.

      I’m glad your experience has been positive. But our point is that D5 shouldn’t be called “environmentally friendly” or “non-toxic” until proven so. And relevant regulatory agencies agree.

      When it comes to safety and environmental risks from chemicals, we generally prefer information coming from regulatory agencies, rather than from the manufacturer. (Especially given the chemical industry’s occasional history with misleading the public.)

      That’s why we pointed out California ARB’s declaration, that while not a VOC, the chemical in Green Earth has been linked to cancer. And, the FTC guidance and Santa Monica regulatory action that determined Green Earth can’t be marketed as “environmentally friendly.”

      If either agency has issued something more up-to-date recanting their findings, please alert me to it. I share your commitment to truth in reporting.

      But, until I see something indicating that these agencies feel Green Earth is environmentally friendly, we won’t change our reporting.

  2. Tim Maxwell

    Jeff –

    In your March 26, 2013 response to the March 25, 2013 post by Lis, you state that while the information that she provide was “comprehensive feedback”, “When it comes to safety and environmental risks from chemicals, we generally prefer information coming from regulatory agencies, rather than from the manufacturer”.

    In fairness to our affiliated GreenEarth cleaners and to us at GreenEarth Cleaning, we would point out that we have talked with you directly in a phone conversation and have followed up with an email to you dated March 26, 2013. In those communications, we pointed out the following to you:

    1. In 2012, an independent Board of Review appointed by the Canadian Minister of the Environment published an 83 page study that concluded that “D5 silicone (the solvent used in the patented GreenEarth dry cleaning process) does not pose a danger to the environment in any of its current or future uses.”

    2. In its statement issued in 2008, the California Air Resources Board publically declared that it saw no need to regulate the use of D5 silicone used in the GreenEarth Cleaning process because it poses no risk to the public and remains an acceptable dry cleaning solvent alternative.

    Additionally we also wanted to share the following additional information with you:

    3. In 2009, The Environment Agency of England and Wales published a 223 page Environmental Risk Assessment of D5 silicone. It concluded that “No risks are identified to the air, water, and the terrestrial compartments, nor to humans exposed via the environment from the production and all uses of D5 (silicone).

    Jeff, we would suggest to you that two national regulatory agencies responsible for the environment in Canada, England and Wales have conducted significant scientific studies and have concluded that D5 silicone is safe for the environment. Further, both the Canadian study (2012) and the UK study (2009) are more recent than the CARB assessment, and both comprehensively surveyed all of the most current science available. Based upon these studies, we believe we have sufficient scientific evidence to support the claim that by our licensed dry cleaning affiliates that GreenEarth Cleaning is “environmentally non-toxic”.

    We would trust that upon your independent review of this latest regulatory information you will agree and that you will change your reporting accordingly.

    Sincerely,

    Tim Maxwell
    President
    GreenEarth Cleaning

  3. Pingback: Are your Organic / Eco Friendly Dry Cleaners Poisoning You and Your Family? - Pro Organic Living

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