In a word (OK, two words), dry cleaning.
I took a gorgeous dress that I’ve worn to a few parties recently to be dry cleaned today. Man, that made me uncomfortable.
I only buy (or get for free) secondhand clothes. I’ve bought almost no new clothes for years and it now feels scandalously wasteful to me to buy new when there is so much unwanted stuff available (kinda like buying a dog from a breeder when you could take a rescue dog).
My main motivation is to reduce my eco-impact. However, it has other benefits too. It saves me soooo much money. Spending more than a fiver on anything feels extravagant these days. In fact, spending money on clothes at all feels extravagant, given how much I get for free.
And I get great clothes. I love vintage pieces, for their quirkiness, their style and their quality.
Plus I never see anyone wearing the same stuff as me.
The proportion of my vintage stuff that has to be drycleaned is a serious drawback though. Apart from the money it costs (some of my vintage items end up costing me more in drycleaning than they did to buy), dry cleaning’s far from eco-friendly.
I minimise the packaging involved by taking a clothes bag and hanger with me so I can refuse the disposable ones I’d otherwise be given. If the item is already wrapped, I swap the hanger for my own. I don’t leave the plastic wrapping as I suspect they’d put it in the bin.
If I end up bringing a plastic bag home, I put it in a plastic bag recycling bin and, if I end up taking a hanger home, I return it to the dry cleaner for reuse.
Worse than the packaging though is that most drycleaners use perchloroethylene, or perc.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency classifies perc as an air contaminant, which must be handled as hazardous waste. Its website says:
"Breathing PERC for short periods of time can adversely affect the human nervous system. Effects range from dizziness, fatigue, headaches and sweating to incoordination and unconsciousness. Contact with PERC liquid or vapor irritates the skin, the eyes, the nose, and the throat. These effects are not likely to occur at levels of PERC that are normally found in the environment. Breathing perchloroethylene over longer periods of time can cause liver and kidney damage in humans. Workers exposed repeatedly to large amounts of PERC in air can also experience memory loss and confusion. Laboratory studies show that PERC causes kidney and liver damage and cancer in animals exposed repeatedly by inhalation and by mouth. Repeat exposure to large amounts of PERC in air may likewise cause cancer in humans.Perchloroethylene by itself is not likely to cause environmental harm at levels normally found in the environment. PERC can contribute to the formation of photochemical smog when it reacts with other volatile organic carbon substances in air".
Some time ago, I heard of an alternative. GreenEarth Cleaning is a dry cleaning system that, instead of using petroleum-baesd solvents, uses liquid silicone, which breaks down to sand and trace amounts of water and carbon dioxide after use.
However, at that time, it wasn’t available in the UK so I’ve continued simply to use the nearest dry cleaner to me. In researching this blog post though, I’ve discovered that Johnson’s the Cleaners are now using it. Fantastic!
I’ll still favour clothes that don’t need dry cleaning, and have the ones that do need it cleaned as rarely as I can get away with. And I’ll still take my own hangers and clothes bags. From now on though, my dry clean only clothes will be cleaned in silicone, not perc.