Everyday Enviro with Elise: dirty cleaning

Everyday Enviro with Elise: dirty cleaning

    By Elise Catterall  October 13th, 2022

    Most of us are familiar by now with the different icons on our clothing labels, including the one that is kind of annoying – dry clean only. This week, Elise discusses why dry cleaning should be avoided when possible.


    Dry cleaning has been a process available to clean clothes since the 1840s.  Back then the solvent used was kerosene, but – unsurprisingly – the solvent being flammable was problematic. The search was on for something less combustible and the chemical that was settled upon was perchloroethylene, commonly known in the industry as PERC. 

    The concept behind dry cleaning is simple: you replace water with another solvent (typically PERC) to clean those fabrics whose fibres don’t play well with water or can’t withstand the agitation that machine or hand washing involves. It’s pretty straightforward. What it isn’t, though, is environmentally friendly, or even safe – and that is because of PERC.

    In Australia, as in most other parts of the world, PERC is still used by the majority of dry cleaners despite being a reproductive toxicant, neurotoxicant, potential human carcinogen, and a persistent environmental pollutant.

    The harm it can cause is not limited to humans; it is also potentially toxic to wildlife. PERC is what is called a persistent pollutant and can contaminate soil, groundwater, and air – which is pretty much our entire environment.

    That lovely ‘clean’ smell you get from freshly dry-cleaned clothing is also from PERC. You’re actually inhaling a volatile chemical – and it stays on your clothes, increasingly so with subsequent cleans.

    The US Department of Labour lists the following risks from PERC:

    Perchloroethylene (PERC), a potential human carcinogen, is the most commonly used dry cleaning solvent. Symptoms associated with exposure include depression of the central nervous system; damage to the liver and kidneys; impaired memory; confusion; dizziness; headache; drowsiness; and eye, nose, and throat irritation. Repeated dermal exposure may result in dermatitis.

    Dry cleaners have systems in place to extract solvents for reuse, which helps keep them out of the environment and to minimise harm to workers. In addition, in Australia, there are strict guidelines and laws in place that dictate the appropriate disposal of dry cleaning waste. However, despite the movement of PERC solvents and waste being closely monitored, it is reported that many dry cleaners do not adhere to the guidelines.

    The good news is that there are alternatives that don’t pose such a risk to workers and consumers or to the environment. Firstly, solvents have been developed (an example is liquid silicone) that are non-toxic and environmentally friendly. Secondly, alternative processes exist including wet cleaning, which uses water and biodegradable detergents and conditioners in specialised machines, and carbon dioxide cleaning. 

    These two alternatives are potential game changers but like with any industry that has operated in a certain way for decades, there is resistance to change. This means it is up to us as consumers to drive that change. So, if you can’t avoid dry cleaning, look for an ecofriendly dry cleaner - they are becoming more and more common and we need to support them (fashion label Noble Label has created a handy directory for Australia). Just remember to skip the garment bag and return the hanger for reuse!

    Planet Ark does not take responsibility for the accuracy of the original information and encourages readers to check the references before using this information for their own purposes.


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    Elise Catterall

    Elise is a writer, photographer, and naturopath with a passion for nature. She completed a Master of Public Health in 2017 through the University of Sydney. Her photographic work focuses on flowers and plants as a way of celebrating nature. She has been writing for Planet Ark since 2017, sharing positive environment stories, personal environmental experiences and perspectives.

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