Wednesday, 19 May 2010

How clean is your dry cleaning?

Image borrowed from the wonderful blog Conversa na Travessa

Just as I thought I was getting the hang of this ethical fashion business, the dirty laundry gets in the way.

With a long overdue and rather feeble spring finally on the way, – see photographic evidence of actual sunshine taken on my way to Geeky Towers this morning - my coats and woolens started their annual pilgrimage to the miracle Turkish dry cleaning lady I trust with all my delicates.
The woman is a pro in eradicating any trace of cat hair, grease and general London muck of any fabric under the sun.

So, you can see why this is not a good time to be told about the need to seek environmentally friendly dry cleaners.
Embarrassingly, I had never considered the possibility until very recently. In my mind and finely tuned nose, – my rather privileged sense of smell can be a blessing and a curse, depending on olfactory circumstances– clean has always been synonym with good.
I love the smell of all things clean, from soap, lavender and mint to bleach, hospital disinfectant and the happy pile of freshly dried-cleaned garments.
It was only on Sunday, as I started making my way to my Turkish friend, that I came across this article on the Guardian’s Leo and Lucy’s Green Column. Yes, the magic that is dry cleaning carries a heavy load of potential hazards. The main culprit I kept hearing of over and over when researching the topic is a cleaning solvent of name perchloroethylene, or perc for the initiated. As with other industrial solvents, there are a number of diverging opinions out there. Some say perc is perfectly safe, as long as handled according to regulations, as you’d do with petrol, for example. Other places, such as Southern California, have decided to gradually ban its use altogether, after studies linked prolonged exposure to increase in cancer rates.

Over here in the UK, the use of perc is regulated under European law and Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSH) regulations. The main concerns are around the over-exposure by those working in the industry, as well as safe disposal of perc and its effects on soil and marine life.

Of course I’m in no position to advise anyone on the safety of perc and conventional dry cleaners, but please have a look at the end of this post for sources of information if you want to know more.

What are the alternatives? There are other, perc-free dry cleaning methods, the most popular of which is a technique trademarked as GreenEarth. I just thought I’d point out that toxic studies have also been carried out on GreeEarth, with equally inconclusive outcomes. The advantage of GreenEarth is that it breaks down to cleaner elements and is safer to dispose of.
Another perk (excuse the pun) is that if you choose one of the many Johnsons cleaners where GreenEarth is available, they run a hanger recycling scheme, responsible so far for a 21% reduction in the use of their plastic hangers.
You can read about other, less toxic (but toxic to some degree, nevertheless) dry cleaning methods here and reach your own conclusions:

And what did I do to my dirty clothes? For now, nothing. I have some homework to do. First on the list: find out if my local and beloved dry cleaner uses perc-free machines. Failing that, my winter collection will be going on a little journey across London for their spa break this year. The nearest Johnsons are a few miles away.

Further reading:

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