Are there Realistic Dry-Cleaning Alternatives to Perc?

Page 2 of 2

By Jennifer Manning

[May 12, 2006]


Silicon. The silicon cleaning process has been shown to be environmentally friendly, as it "degrades to sand, water and carbon dioxide and is listed by EPA as a substitute for ozone-depleting chemicals" (EPA, 2006). However, with respect to human health, there are mixed reports on the safety of siloxanes (the name comes from silicon, oxygen, and alkane), which are a combination of organic and inorganic compounds. The form used in clothes cleaning, cosmetics, and personal health products is decamethylcyclopentasiloxane, also known as D5.

Like CO2, the silicon-based cleaning approach is proprietary, belonging to GreenEarth Cleaning, which licenses several franchises to use its technology. There has been positive feedback about the cleaning ability of the silicon cleaning process, and the GreenEarth technology is relatively available; this availability may be due, in part, to its corporate backing. "While CO2 dry cleaning has some big companies behind it, the silicone-based GreenEarth approach is backed by two of the corporate world's biggest names: General Electric and Procter & Gamble," says Chemical & Engineering News, which also notes that "GreenEarth literature describes D5 as nontoxic, nonirritating to skin, and nonregulated... [and] the compound is already used in personal care products such as roll-on deodorants, shampoos, and body lotions." Not enough data are yet available for the EPA to make a determination on whether D5 poses a cancer risk to humans; therefore, EPA is still assessing the research and expects that the decision for further studies will be made by the end of 2006.

Wet cleaning. The EPA describes wet cleaning as follows: "...processes include professional, labor-intensive cleaning techniques and high-tech washing and drying machines that use soap and water to clean clothes... A garment may be spot cleaned, steamed, hand washed, or some combination of those processes. Or the garment may be washed in a computerized washing machine that regulates water temperature and agitation. (These, rather than water alone, are the real culprits that cause clothes to shrink.) Technicians also choose from several methods of drying... so as to limit shrinkage. After cleaning, garments are pressed and finished with techniques similar to those used by dry cleaners" (Virginia Department of Environmental Quality/EPA Region 4, 2006).

The environmental and health risks of wet cleaning are minimal to none. Drawbacks? The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) says: "Depending on where you live, availability could be your biggest obstacle. If you can't find a wet cleaners nearby, ask your dry cleaners if they do wet cleaning too. You'd be surprised how many do. The cost of wet cleaning is comparable to dry cleaning" (UCS, 2000).

There are other non-perc methods available, including synthetic hydrocarbons and Stoddard solvent; however, CO2, silicon, and wet cleaning are the three most prominent and attractive due to their environmental friendliness and cleaning ability. As described in part 1 of this article, perc came into dominance as a cleaner because of its superior cleaning power, reduced flammability, and cheapness. So how do the primary perc alternatives compare, at least in terms of cleaning ability?

In 2003, Consumer Reports' report "Dry-cleaning Alternatives" compared the three methods plus traditional wet-cleaning. Their tests revealed:

"Carbon dioxide. This method gave the best results... The clothing didn't change shape, shrink, or stretch. There was little or no change in the color or the texture of the fabrics; only one silk shirt faded slightly after the third cleaning.

"Silicone-based. Marketed as GreenEarth cleaning, this method was almost as good. All three cleaners did a good job on the blouse. Two of the three skirts came out well, although pleats were not pressed as tidily as they could have been. One skirt shrank slightly. All three jackets showed moderate to severe pilling.

"Wet-cleaning. This method left the lambswool jacket severely pilled in all three cases. Two jackets looked as though they had not been pressed. One shrank. The sizing was removed from one skirt, so it looked limp. Another skirt shrank from a size 14 to about a size 10. The silk blouses took to water fairly well: Only one showed slight fading.

"Percholorethylene. These results surprised us, considering that perc is so widely used. The lambswool jacket was severely pilled. The skirt shrank almost one size. The silk blouse faded and had a white, frosted look. This is the only method that resulted in an odor being left on the clothes."

See Dry-cleaning Alternatives 2003 for Consumer Report's full report.

Given that CO2, silicon, and even wet cleaning are apparently better in almost every way than traditional dry cleaning, why aren't more cleaners making the change?

Much of the problem likely has to do with cost, especially for the independent, non-franchise cleaner. This demographic makes up the bulk of the dry cleaning industry; according to NIOSH, "Most of these [dry cleaning] shops are small businesses with fewer than 10 employees." The cost of retrofitting equipment to use substances other than perc can be prohibitive, and as previously indicated, silicon-process machines are about ten thousand dollars more than a perc machine, and the CO2 technology is even more expensive.

The fact that the most viable - the most efficient, effective, and environmentally sound - alternatives to perc are proprietary may be a difficulty for small business owners, especially if they do not want, or cannot afford to be, part of a franchise, or cannot afford to license new technology or pay royalties. If their customers are not complaining, and if the cost of retrofitting their equipment or properly disposing of the perc machines and purchasing new machines that operate on a different technology does not outweigh the cost of increased taxes and/or fines for using perc, then many small business owners may - and do - choose to stay with perc.

However, it is consumer demand, which is leading to increased application of government restriction on perc, which is driving the move away from perc. As the public becomes more aware of what the government has known for decades - that perc is toxic - it seems clear that the industry will increasingly trend away from perc. Dry cleaning establishments are already facing more stringent regulation, higher taxes, and increased insurance rates, all of which are primarily due to the hazards they pose to human health and the environment.

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  • Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). September 1997. ToxFAQsTM for Tetrachloroethylene (PERC).
  • Chemical & Engineering News. November 14, 2005. "Dry Cleaning Dreams - Numerous contenders seek to unseat perchloroethylene as the top dry cleaning solvent," by Michael McCoy. Volume 83, Number 46, pp. 19-22.
  • February 2003. "Dry-cleaning alternatives." Website:
    cleaning/drycleaning-alternatives-203.htm. Accessed April 2006.
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Design for the Environment (DFE). November 10, 2005. Website:
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  • Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, USEPA Region 4. EPA Fact Sheet: Wet Cleaning: An Alternative to Dry Cleaning that Is Safe For You, Your Clothes and Your Cleaner. Website: Accessed April 2006.


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