Most of us only know that when we bring clothes to the dry cleaner, a few days later they come back perfectly clean (except for that one stubborn spot and the missing button). Dry cleaning is actually a more harsh, and environmentally harmful, process than you might think, but new regulations may be changing the way the industry operates.
Today the Wall Street Journal has a guide to the secrets of the dry cleaning world. Here's how it goes: First it's tossed on a pile with everyone else's nasty, stained clothing and sorted by fabric, color, or stain. It's then pre-treated and placed in a large washing machine that uses solvents instead of water. The machine includes a receptacle that lets dry cleaners collect all the buttons that popped off. They're sewn back on so you never realize that your clothing was violently ripped apart in the machine.
Then any remaining stains are spot cleaned, and the garment is pressed in a machine — unless it's a woman's shirt. As shown by a previous study, women generally pay 73% more than men for shirts, ostensibly because blouses don't fit in the steamer and must be hand ironed.
Dry cleaning is one of the few industries that still consists of mainly mom and pop stores, but that may be changing soon due to concerns over the widely-used chemical perchloroethylene or perc. According to new EPA regulations, cleaners located in residential buildings must stop using the solvent by 2020 because it's been classified as an air pollutant and possible human carcinogen. Some states are already starting to restrict the chemical's use.
Perc has been used since the 1930s and is particularly good at treating oil-based stains, but now cleaners are searching for new cleaning products. Procter & Gamble has launched the chain Tide Dry Cleaners, which uses a silicone-based product called GreenEarth, and others are switching to hydrocarbon or a process using water and detergent.
The EPA hasn't investigated any of these methods, so it's possible that dry cleaners are just swapping one toxic substance for another. And making the switch isn't cheap. New machines can cost tens of thousands of dollars, so cleaners that convert will probably raise their prices. For those concerned about shelling out more for a possibly environmentally unfriendly service, you may want to look into what chemicals local dry cleaners are using — or just stop buying clothes that are "dry clean only."
Image via mangostock/Shutterstock.