The instantly familiar smell of perchloroethylene (perc) is associated with picking up your dry cleaning. And with some monumental environment and health concerns.
According to the air-quality authorities in southern California, people living near a typical dry-cleaners face a higher risk of cancer than those near oil-refineries or power stations. Women who work in dry-cleaning shops are 2-4 times more likely to have miscarriages than those who don’t.
With a timorous EPA having shied away from reform, California has opted to go it alone. From January 1st onwards, dry cleaners throughout the state will be banned from replacing any of their perc washing and drying machines. And all existing ones will have to be phased out over the next 15 years.
Anticipating the ban, a number of California dry cleaners have been giving the impression they’ve gone green. Signs boasting new “organic” cleaning processes have been springing up everywhere. But that means organic, as in hydrocarbon-based organic chemistry, not something derived from nature that’s perfectly safe to have around. [More]
One of the alternatives being considered is liquid carbon-dioxide. The results there are ambivalent and it's expensive. Then there is an older answer with help from modern technology.
That leaves wet-cleaning—using water and non-toxic biodegradable soap—as the most likely beneficiary of perc’s pending demise. The process was pioneered in Germany in the late 1990s; it gets most soiled garments cleaner than even perc can. It is also cheaper than the perc process and uses half the electricity.
Computer-controlled dryers and stretchers ensure the garment retains its original size and shape. Surprisingly, wet-cleaning turns out to be safe with most items labeled “dry clean only”. That includes woollens, silks and rayons as well as even leather and suede.
The only garments the new wet-cleaners don’t handle particularly well are neckties. But, then, dry-cleaners never managed to do a decent job with neckties either. And nowadays no-one bothers with such fripperies anyway.