Dry cleaners are magicians—they can make anything from red wine to grass stains disappear. But the tricks of their trade sometimes cast a bad spell. Inhalation of the common dry-cleaning solvent perchloroethylene, widely known as perc,can cause dizziness, eye and respiratory irritation, even unconsciousness. Studies suggest that exposure to perc can have long-term effects on the liver and kidney and may cause cancer. When improperly disposed of, perc contaminates groundwater. Plus, billions of hangers, paper sleeves, and plastic covers wind up in landfills each year, taking hundreds or thousands of years to break down. So how to give your glad rags the abracadabra treatment without contaminating the earth?
Take your business elsewhere if your dry cleaner or clothes smell of solvents—it's a sign that the machines aren't properly maintained. Look for cleaners that use green methods: pairing liquid CO2 (like carbonated soda) with earth-safe detergents or using biodegradable, silicon-based solvents, for example. Get a nationwide list of eco-friendly cleaners at www.epa.gov/dfe/pubs/garment/gcrg/cleanguide.pdf.
Know Your Terms
Many cleaners call themselves "organic," but use of the word is unregulated in the industry. Technically, any carbon-based compound is organic—including perc. If you use a so-called organic cleaner, ask for specifics.
Don't take those DRY-CLEAN ONLY tags too literally. For solid-colored wool or rayon, use the delicate cycle with a safe detergent (like Woolite); for more precious cargo, mix a little baby shampoo with tepid water right in your bathtub. You'll protect the Earth and your wallet—but if it's angora or has a lining, leave it to the pros.
Green your closet with compostable hangers from WheatWare.com ($18.50 for a case of 20), and return wire hangers to your cleaner for reuse.
Quick Change: Say goodbye to those pesky plastic wrappers forever: Use the convertible Dry Greening bag as a tote when you take clothes to the dry cleaner and as a garment bag when you pick them up ($10; Dry-Greening.com).