Guilt-Free Laundry

Dry cleaning can be bad for your health and the planet, but there are greener alternatives

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Albert Vecerka / Esto for Time

Green Apple Cleaners in Lodi, N.J., uses carbon dioxide washing machines.

David Kistner's midcareer switch to green cleaning was prompted by another life-changing experience: having kids. In 2002, Kistner was working as a consultant in the aviation industry and his wife Effie was expecting their first child. (They ended up having twin boys.) The baby books he devoured contained a fact that caught his attention: pregnant women and infants should avoid dry cleaning because of the toxic chemicals used in the process. When he had trouble finding a greener cleaner in New York City, Kistner had an epiphany — he'd start his own. The result is Green Apple Cleaners, which uses a variety of environmentally friendly methods to dry-clean suits, shirts and dresses. "I knew there had to be a better way," says Kistner. "When I couldn't find it, we made it ourselves."

As it's practiced by the vast majority of laundry shops around the country, dry cleaning can be anything but clean. Most of the 35,000 dry cleaners in the U.S. use a colorless liquid called perchloroethylene (perc) as a solvent in the laundering process. Perc is not pretty — it's a volatile organic compound that in small doses can cause dizziness, headaches and respiratory irritation. Prolonged perc exposure has been linked to liver and kidney damage, and the government has identified the chemical as a potential occupational carcinogen.

Though the greatest risk is in the dry-cleaning workplace, perc can get into customers' homes and even into the air, water and soil when dry cleaners dispose of waste. But there are greener alternatives — and a growing number of cleaners taking advantage of them. One approach is to have your clothes professionally wet-cleaned, using cold water, mild soaps and a computer-controlled washing machine that spins very slowly, which reduces wear and tear on fabric. That may be the greenest method — wet cleaning uses no volatile organic chemicals at all and is more energy efficient than traditional dry cleaning. The downside, some have found, is that the cleaning isn't always as thorough, though Kistner believes experienced cleaners can compensate. "We pride ourselves on knowing which method to use," he says.

Another way to get a green cleaning is to use liquid carbon dioxide. CO2 is nontoxic — thankfully, since so much of it is in the atmosphere. In CO2 cleaning, clothes are put in a vacuum chamber with gaseous and liquid CO2, which dissolves dirt and oil. The drawback here is price: a new CO2 dry-cleaning machine can run more than $100,000. Cleaning green "does take longer and cost more," admits Kistner. How much more? Green Apple charges at least $6.16 to clean a shirt using wet methods or CO2.

Despite these relatively high prices, Green Apple has found a niche among the more environmentally sensitive citizens of New York and New Jersey. Before Kistner opened his first store, he had 1,000 customers signed up, and today there are three Green Apple Cleaners in the metropolitan area. It may help that Kistner throws in a few green extras, paying customers to return hangers and employing reusable or biodegradable plastic bags. Outside major urban areas like New York, environmentally friendly cleaners can be tougher to find. But the company Green Earth Cleaning has licensed its technology to launderers around the world; you can find a green cleaner near you on its website, GreenEarthCleaning.com.

Although green cleaners are still in the minority, government action from the top may make the shift inevitable — California is phasing out the use of perc, and other states will probably follow. "There's definitely a market out there," says Kistner. There's no reason dry cleaning has to dirty the earth.