An Organic Service to Avoid

Is there really such a thing as organic dry cleaning?

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Q. There’s a dry cleaner near me that advertises “organic dry cleaning” service. Is there such a thing? —J. Panowski, Brooklyn, New York

A. Dry cleaners that advertise themselves as “organic” are implying that their services are environmentally preferable, says Peter Sinsheimer, Ph.D., executive director of the Sustainable Technology & Policy Program at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Some cleaning processes can be termed “organic” in the sense that they rely on chemicals that contain carbon—the chemist’s definition of the word. But Sinsheimer explains that they may be far from desirable in the environmental sense: “The dry cleaners that I know of using the word organic are all using petroleum-based solvents, otherwise known as hydrocarbon dry cleaning. As this name implies, these solvents are carbon-based and sourced from a nonrenewable feedstock. In addition, they release smog-forming VOCs (volatile organic compounds), are fire hazards, and are energy-intensive.” Hydrocarbon cleaners are regulated under the Clean Air Act due to the adverse impact of their emissions and by state fire code laws due to combustibility.

“Hydrocarbon dry cleaning emerged in the 1990s as an alternative to the dry-cleaning solvent perchloroethylene, otherwise known as PCE or perc,” Sinsheimer says. “PCE is classified as a known carcinogen and neurotoxin and is also regulated under the Clean Air Act as a hazardous air pollutant.” On the other hand, it is not a fire hazard, and while energy intensive, it uses less energy than hydrocarbon dry cleaning, he says.

“Another alternative to PCE dry cleaning to emerge in the 1990s is professional wet cleaning, a water-based alternative that is nontoxic, is not a fire hazard, and is extremely energy-efficient,” says Sinsheimer. “While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not recognize hydrocarbon as an environmentally preferable substitute to PCE dry cleaning, it does recognize professional wet cleaning as environmentally preferable. EPA also recognizes CO2 dry cleaning as an environmentally preferable alternative, although at this time CO2 dry-cleaning machines are very expensive, making this technology not commercially viable for most cleaners to consider. By contrast, cleaners are able to slowly add professional wet cleaning to their existing operations as a transition to making a full conversion to this sustainable technology.”

Because so-called organic dry cleaners may be using hazardous, air-polluting hydrocarbons, and because of toxicity concerns of other dry-cleaning technologies, Sinsheimer recommends asking cleaners what solvent they use for cleaning before you drop off your silks and suits. The UCLA Sustainable Technology & Policy Program has a link to professional cleaners in the United States that offer more-eco-friendly professional wet cleaning and CO2 dry-cleaning services.

Photograph courtesy of Daniel Lobo/flickr
Ask Organic Gardening is edited by Deb Martin
Originally published in Organic Gardening magazine, February/March 2014

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