Dry cleaning establishment in ancient Pompeii: <em>Fullonica</em> of Veranius Hysaeus, where ammonia (from urine) and fuller's earth were used to launder woolen togas.

I had a tour of a dry-cleaning facility recently, and found the education alternately depressing and encouraging.

First, it is not “dry” cleaning, just waterless. Clothes have been tumbling around with petroleum-based chemical solvents and detergent for over a hundred years, the result being that the items were cleansed and the environment dirtied or, worse, toxified.

A hundred years ago the solvent was simply gasoline. Mid last-century the solvent of choice became PCE — perchlorethylene, or perc for short, a VOC (volatile organic compound) easily breathed in, now known as a neurotoxin, and otherwise a sickening substance. Thousands of facilities simply dumped the used solvent because — what else could they do with it? Hazardous waste was not even an issue until the late 1970s, when regulation began to require proper handling and disposal of substances deemed dangerous to our health.

By 1990, the Clean Air and Water acts limited emissions of perc, putting the squeeze on dry cleaners to clean up their act. California is mandating a complete phaseout of its use by 2023.

And so, alternative methods of dry cleaning have been springing up (what a relief!) including the “GreenEarth Cleaning” system currently being used in 22 countries and here in Santa Barbara at Ablitt’s. This system uses a chemical abbreviated as D5, primarily silicone, and is considered nontoxic and chemically nonreactive, breaking down quickly in the environment. Sasha Ablitt says that the entire facility uses less than a car tank’s worth of the fluid in a whole year, as it is continuously filtered and reused. It is then responsibly removed and treated as hazardous, just in case.

Good to know also that this process of filtering and reuse is used for the petrochemical solvents the others use as well but requires much more of them and their disposal as actual hazardous waste. Many cleaners calling themselves “green” or “eco” now still use them, by the way. Talk about greenwashing.

Besides the silcone-based cleaning system, other alternatives to petroleum-based dry cleaning exist as well, including, amazingly, a method that uses a compressed liquid form of carbon dioxide in a sealed system. Currently the equipment for this is too costly for small businesses, so it is not available in most places. A friend tipped me off to a place in Los Angeles using it that picks up and delivers once a week in Santa Barbara — a more carbon-intensive option than cleaning locally, but perhaps not if we all individually make special trips to the local cleaners. (To address that issue, Ablitt’s has a frequently used pickup and delivery service, with careful routing to limit the drive.)

Wet cleaning. a more labor-intensive process, is widely available now (Ablitt’s offers this, too, as do other area cleaners), and it is also environmentally friendly. It employs specialized equipment and gentle cleaning agents along with less water than regular washing. Many garments do not actually require dry cleaning, if handled with care.

And those other aspects of dry cleaning that have an impact? Sasha Ablitt is concerned with them, too. Customers are encouraged to return their hangers and plastic bags, and both are reused or recycled. A buyer picks up the baled plastic.

I didn’t set out to write an ad for one business in Santa Barbara, and I’ve no doubt there are others that are environmentally conscious, since dry cleaning has had a pretty dirty image for a long time. But my tour of one facility was the basis for this research, and for a sense of hope. Some business owners and operators are always looking for healthier alternatives for us and the planet, especially when consumers ask for them. With greater awareness we are slowly rising above our polluting ways. Well, at least some are.


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