From professional wet cleaning to home steaming and even a stint in the freezer, your clothes, health and planet will thank you for rethinking your laundry routines
Dry cleaning emerged in the 1930s as a magical method to clean delicate and heavily embellished garments that were too sensitive to be laundered. Less marvellous, is the liquid solvent widely used to dissolve stains and dirt. Perchloroethylene, also known as tetrachloroethylene or ‘PERC’, is classified as an irritant and a carcinogen. It’s banned in France, Denmark and parts of the US, but still widely used in the UK. While risks to the occasional dry cleaning customer are low, there’s some evidence to suggest troubling levels of PERC can accumulate in clothes that are regularly cleaned using the solvent. Once more, those working in the dry cleaning industry or dealing with contaminated land or ground water can become exposed to the toxins. “In terms of human health, it seems the occasional user of dry cleaning is at minimal risk,” confirms Dr Paula Owen, a sustainability specialist and founder of eco consultancy Green Gumption which advises clients including Thames Water and the Energy Saving Trust. “The acute toxicity of PERC is moderate to low, which means there are risks, but they’re low. It’s the people who work in the industry who are most at risk. The smell of PERC is horrible and from an environmental point of view PERC doesn’t deplete the ozone, so it’s more a threat to ground water and the ground itself.” Choose not to use traditional dry cleaning and you end support for a system that harms vulnerable workers and environments.
Of course, some clothes are just too delicate to trust to your home washing machine, but there is another way; the past two decades have seen the spread of PERC alternatives that promise to be 100 percent toxin-free. The most accessible is GreenEarth, a trademarked method from the US that uses a silicone-based liquid. GreenEarth is used as standard at national dry cleaning chain Johnsons, which has 190 stores around the UK, as well as at independent businesses. Find your nearest at greenearthcleaning.com/ store-locator. Another alternative is wet cleaning, a laundering method that uses intelligent machines (most commonly the Woolmark-approved Electrolux Wet Cleaning System) and for a delicate wash that uses minimal energy, water and detergent. Garments are returned softer and brighter than with PERC, and free from chemical odour. As the technology has become more affordable, cleaning services offer wet cleaning, so speak to your local provider to learn what’s available. According to research conducted by Electrolux around 65 percent of us are unaware of the benefits of professional wet cleaning, so there’s scope for the services to grow.
Flick through the rails in a swanky boutique and you’ll spot ‘dry clean only’ labels time after time. Some are warranted after all silk, rayon and viscose all require careful handling, while pleats, crushed finishes and elaborate embroidery can all emerge from a washing machine in utter ruins. But is dry cleaning always necessary? “When I purchase clothes the first thing I do is look the label to see what the manufacturer says,” says Paula. “A lot of the time, especially with high-end items, they’ll stick ‘dry clean only’ on the label just because it’s convenient from them. Personally, if I think a fabric is fine, I won’t listen to that. I’ll put it on a delicates wash, and I’ll never have a problem.” Take a good look at your favourite ‘dry clean only’ garment. Are you sure it needs a trip to the cleaners? LoveYourClothes.co.uk is a clothing care platform supported by UK waste charity Wrap. It has plenty of tips and techniques for refreshing tricky garments without calling in the professionals, or resorting to toxic chemicals.
“For decades we’ve been talking about washing in terms of energy use, water use and detergent use,” says Paula. “And now we’re talking about the microplastics released. Fundamentally, they all have an impact on the environment.” The threat that plastics in water courses present to our wildlife is well understood: marine species commonly die of digestive damage, drowning or even starvation after encountering plastics. The risk to humans is less well-known, but one recent report suggests urgent work is needed to ascertain the toxicology of the microplastics and nano plastics that have been found in multiple fish and shellfish in our food chain. A report into marine plastic pollution conducted on behalf of Friends of the Earth concludes that laundered synthetic clothes are a major contributor, and recommends a shift away from fabrics that emit the most fibres. The average UK household runs through around 165 washing machine cycles each year, with estimates suggesting up to 2,900 tonnes of fibres pass through water treatment to end up in rivers and estuaries. “To reduce the environmental and human health impact of washing powders the advice would always be to only use ecolabelled products,” says Dr Anna Watson, head of advocacy at CHEM Trust, a charity founded to prevent man-made chemicals causing long-term damage to human health and wildlife. “Use unperfumed products, cut down on the frequency of washing (only washing clothes when they really need it), make sure it is a full washing load – to reduce microfibre release into the waste water.”
Keeping your clothes fresh and clean without endangering your own health or that of the environment means changing your routine. Could that beautiful blouse benefit from a spell hanging in a steamy bathroom, rather than a full wash? Do your jeans need quite so much laundering? “Our organic denim is long-lasting and durable; the less you machine wash them, the better,” says Tracy Mulligan, creative director at sustainability brand People Tree. “Try putting them in the freezer as an alternative.” Ambient temperatures can also be harnessed. “If you use a tumble drier it takes four times the energy to dry your clothes as it does to wash them,” says Paula. “Plus it’s a violent cycle that reduces the life span of those garments.” Opting to dry your clothes on clothes horses will seriously lower your energy footprint, and keep your favourite garments in good shape.
Find out how to swap dry cleaning for a low-toxin alternative…
Say no to dry
“Don’t buy dry clean only clothes”, say CHEM Trust’s Dr Anna Watson. Manufacturers and retailers will soon get the message that garments should be labelled and designed more responsibly.
Up your skills
Try handwashing delicates with zero-waste natural detergents. “Soap nuts are dried fruit shells containing a natural soap called saponin, which is released when they meet water,” says Jen Chillingsworth, author of Live Green (£8.99, Quadrille). “They can be used several times before replacing, and you can put the used ones in the compost.”
Speak to local professionals
Wet cleaning is a closed-loop system that prevents plastic microfibre entering water courses, and uses biodegradable detergents. Check if your ‘dry clean only’ delicates are suitable for professional wet cleaning.
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