Dry Clean Dilemma

Greening the dry cleaning, without all the wrinkles.

Alyssa Martino
4-minute read

I'm a lazy sort of environmentalist. I can't be bothered to iron more than absolutely necessary, so I like dry cleaning my nicer clothes. The problem I run into is that good old eco-guilt. In the environmental remediation industry, tons of the peskier clean-ups are of dry cleaning sites. Dry-cleaners are notoriously hard on the environment. Find out why, and what to do about it in this episode.

Why Is It Called "Dry" Cleaning?

Dry cleaning is not actually "dry," it's just cleaning without water. Dry cleaners use non-polar solvents to dissolve the stains off of your clothes. Stains like grease, wax, and lipstick are made of water-hating, or non-polar molecules. So when you wash them in your washing machine with water, they can be difficult to remove. Laundry soap usually contains cleaning agents with both water-loving and water-hating parts, but stains can still be difficult to dissolve off of your clothes.

For many years, dry cleaners used petroleum-based oils, including gasoline and kerosene, to clean clothes; but these were very flammable in the hot environment of the washing machine. Even the most stable and least combustible oil, called Stoddard's solvent, still caught fire. Oil was replaced after World War I by non-polar halogenated solvents, mostly a carbon-based molecule with a few chlorines added onto it called tetrachloroethylene, or percholoroethylene. It's also called PCE or perc for short. I'll use PCE, since that's most commonly used in my business.

Dry Cleaning Hazards

PCE, like many environmental nightmares we're confronted with today, seemed like a good idea at the time. It wasn't as flammable as oils and was stable enough to purify in a distillation process and could be reused over many times. No more explosions, and cleaners saved money by reusing stuff -- great! PCE slid into this century with an added bonus -- it does not deplete ozone the way many of her halogenated solvent sisters do. So even after the hole-in-the-ozone scare of the 1970s, dry cleaners could go about their business without worrying.

Dry cleaning employees, however, became lightheaded when exposed to PCE vapors for too long, got dizzy and started having headaches. Also, people living nearer to dry cleaners tend to have higher probability of developing cancer, and research in rat studies showed a causative cancer relationship. This prompted the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (or NIOSH) to list PCE as a potential human carcinogen. PCE in the air is not good for anyone, rats or humans.

Most of my colleagues, who have been in the environmental remediation business a lot longer than I have, will tell you that they've worked on at least a dozen dry cleaner jobs. They're the most prevalent small and large contamination sources aside from leaky storage tanks at gas stations. PCE is a liquid at room temperature, so like gasoline, it tends to contaminate both soil and groundwater if it's spilled on the ground, whether intentionally or by accident. The everyday bread and butter of the environmental industry is finding ways to clean up these dirty, dirty places.

Dry cleaners today face tight restrictions on their use of both petroleum-based Stoddard's solvent and PCE. Both are listed under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act or "rick-rah" of 1976 as hazardous waste. RCRA waste generators are scrutinized by the EPA, because generators are responsible for their hazardous waste from the cradle to the grave, from the time it was first created at the cleaners to its final resting place at the disposal center, a special landfill called a Class I landfill designed to handle hazardous waste. Your household trash goes to a class III landfill, which cannot accept hazardous materials. For dry cleaners, dealing with waste is expensive, carries stiff legal penalties if it's done wrong, and is a heavy paperwork burden.

Dry cleaners today face tight restrictions on their use of both petroleum-based Stoddard's solvent and PCE. Both are listed under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act or "rick-rah" of 1976 as hazardous waste. 


Customers of dry cleaners are doing the environment and the owners of the dry cleaning establishments a favor by choosing environmentally friendly solvents. There are a few out there, so ask your dry cleaner what type of method he uses to clean your clothes. By patronizing businesses that use alternative cleaning methods, you'll be saving the environment a lot of hassle from contamination, and you'll be encouraging other dry cleaners to consider safe alternatives to PCE. Here are two of the most common alternatives.

  • The first is liquid carbon dioxide, a high-pressure form of the common gas, and it's a safe, non-toxic, inflammable way to clean up your clothes. The problem for most dry cleaners is that the equipment needed to clean with liquid carbon-dioxide is bulky and expensive. Not many mom and pops can afford to do it. But if you find a dry cleaner that uses it, hold on tight! You've found a rare gem.
  • The second alternative is a new silicate-based solvent that works in a similar way to PCE and petroleum, so the equipment is less expensive and conversion is less costly.

Both of these alternatives will ensure better health for the dry-cleaning staff and the planet in general. Asking around your local dry cleaners can also help create awareness in the community about these new alternatives to PCE.

As a last note, if you are an employee working with PCE and you do not know about safe handling of the substance, or you think you're handling it in an unsafe manner, you have to right to know the dangers and how to protect yourself. Contact you local OSHA office for help.




Go green image courtesy of Shutterstock.