Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The healthiest approach to dry cleaning is avoidance

I have a beautiful pair of velvet pants that I hadn’t worn for almost two years because they were dirty and have a “dry clean only” tag. There are all sorts of “dry clean only” clothes that I wash by hand or on the delicate cycle of the washing machine but I wasn’t willing to chance it on these pants. But at the same time I hated the thought of going to a dry cleaner.

My reason for avoidance? The most common dry cleaning solvent, perchloroethylene (PERC for short), is highly toxic. Aside from the fact that it pollutes waterways, the World Health Organization and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency consider PERC a probable carcinogen and Environment Canada considers it a toxin. Exposure to the fumes can cause nervous system disorders and liver and kidney damage. These solvents can make those who work in dry cleaning establishments sick, and can harm you too if you wear clothes that have been dry cleaned.

Dry cleaning solvents rub off on your body and the fumes they give off build up in enclosed spaces (like closets). Inhaling the fumes is unhealthy so be sure to remove the plastic immediately and hang newly dry cleaned clothes on the line for a while before putting them in your closet or putting them on.

The most eco-friendly dry cleaning process uses liquid carbon dioxide. The problem is that CO2 dry cleaners are practically impossible to find and as far as I can tell you’d have to ship your clothes to Kansas to benefit from this cleaning process which is a shame because by all accounts it’s also the most effective and most gentle of all dry cleaning options available.

While we wait for this solution to make its way New Brunswick here is a bit more information on what is available to us locally.

I inquired with the larger dry cleaners in the area and they still use a PERC-based cleaning solution. The new dry cleaner in Rothesay (VIP) is PERC-free but does use a petroleum-based solvent that is an environmental toxin, just less toxic than PERC-based solvents. (This is where I ended up taking my pants).

The healthiest approach to dry cleaning (for you and the environment) is to avoid it when possible.

Many “dry clean only” garments can be washed by hand with a gentle detergent like Woolite, or hold up well when washed on the delicate cycle of your clothes washer.

Treat stains on clothing immediately before they set into clothing to reduce the need for dry cleaning, and never iron stained clothing (it cooks the stains in).

Sometimes dry cleaning is more about ironing avoidance. Can you wash some items by hand or on the delicate cycle of your washing machine and then take them in to be pressed?

Think twice abut buying clothes that require dry cleaning.

Also, dry cleaning wrap can go in the blue bins with plastic bags. And one more thing: the terms “organic” and “environmentally friendly” aren’t regulated so businesses can use them with abandon.

Switching to recycled toilet paper can change the world

Sometimes the smallest things can make a big difference. Take toilet paper for example. Simply switching from the plushy kind to toilet paper made from 100% recycled paper products is one of the simplest eco-friendly changes you can make. You’ll help save trees, reduce dangerous environmental dioxins and save millions of litres of water.

End-to-end (so to speak) the environmental impact of such a simple change is remarkable. When compared to standard toilet paper (which is made from virgin wood fibre) , brands made with 100% recycled content take 44% less energy to produce, cause 38% fewer greenhouse gas emissions and 41% fewer particulate emissions, produce 50% less wastewater and use 100% less wood.

Switching toilet paper is hardly a lifestyle change. Eco-friendly toilet paper costs about the same, or less, is stocked on the same shelf in the grocery store and serves exactly the same purpose.

When you scan the grocery store shelves for something new here’s what to look for:

How much recycled content it contains: 6,000,000 trees are cut each year to make toilet paper for Canadians. The more people switch to brands using 100% recycled content, the fewer trees will be cut. The more post-consumer content the better since it diverts paper from the landfill.

How the paper was bleached: Look for products that aren’t bleached using chlorine, which can create the toxic byproduct dioxin.

Fortunately there are lots of earth-friendly options to choose from in our local stores:

PC Green toilet paper (Super Store) is made with 100% post-consumer recycled paper and it’s made without the use of chlorine (although some of the recycled paper in the product was likely bleached with chlorine).

Compliments Green (Sobey’s) is also made with 100% recycled content, most of which is post-consumer. It’s whitened without chlorine and is EcoLogo certified.

White Swan has a line that is also EcoLogo certified and made with 100% recycled content (containing up to 80% post-consumer waste).

Cashmere has a line that is EcoLogo certified and made with 100% recycled content.

Majesta has a line called Soft & Green which is whitened without chlorine but still uses virgin wood fibre. The wood is sustainably sourced but with so many 100% recycled content options I rank this lower on the list.

While you’re at it, use the same check list for other disposable paper products that you buy, like facial tissue or paper towel. Many of the brands listed above offer similar paper towel options but in my search only White Swan has facial tissues too.

As always it’s good to read labels so you’re not duped by eco-sounding names. Don’t forget to recycle the toilet paper roll and other packaging.

In our house we use toilet paper in lieu of facial tissue and rags instead of paper towel. But if you’re not ready to give up these creature comforts at least know that there are more eco-friendly options available.