Feature

Dry clean only (if you have to)

G Magazine

Is dry-cleaning an eco no-no? G looks at some alternatives.

Dry cleaning

Credit: iStockphoto

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If you believe the yarns spun by old dry cleaners at the end of the day as their machines hiss and cool, modern-day dry-cleaning - immersing fabrics in a liquid other than water - was discovered by accident in France in the 1840s. A slovenly maid carelessly caused a kerosene lamp to spill onto a dirty tablecloth. Some very stubborn stains were miraculously removed, and after that, so they say, petroleum-based cleaning agents took off.

The only problem was that these first-generation cleaning agents were frighteningly flammable. In the 1970s, most Australian dry cleaners switched to a non-flammable synthetic solvent called perchlorethylene (perc).

According to Philip Johns, chief executive of the Drycleaning Institute of Australia (DIA), it is still the preferred cleaning agent among Australia's 1,500 dry cleaners, used in 95 per cent of the machines. But this solvent has its own problems. WorkSafe Australia says it's a possible carcinogen, a known irritant for asthmatics and a potential environmental contaminant. Its effects are such that California last year voted to phase out perc over the next 15 years.

The good news is that Australian dry cleaners use equipment that recirculates the same perc. And clean, green, chemical-free options are being investigated.

One of these alternative solvents is actually good ol' water. But it's not quite back to square one. This 'wet cleaning' method uses eco-friendly biodegradable detergents and a couple of reshaping tools, to counteract stretching and distortion.

In these dry times, some say that wet cleaning is not a sustainable solution, but Paul Littmann, managing director of Melbourne-based wet cleaning service Daisy, says this argument doesn't hold water, because Daisy recycles its H2O, reusing it three or four times. "We actually use about the same amount of water as a perc dry cleaner does," he says. Daisy can safely wash about 96 per cent of fabrics, and if the cleaners are not confident they can clean a garment, their next step is to contact you to ask if you're happy for the item to be sent to a perc-based cleaner.

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