It seems most standup comedians have joked about dry-cleaning at some point in their careers, but mostly I remember Jerry Seinfeld, wondering how it would be possible to clean with "dry".
"You can't use it," he said. "You can't do anything with it. It's not there. Dry is nothing."
Well it turns out that dry he was talking about was something. Something pretty toxic. One of the most troublesome chemicals used in the process is perchloroethylene, a clear, colourless solvent commonly referred to as perc, which has been listed by the US Environmental Protection Agency as hazardous to the environment as well as to humans. A variety of governments in North America, both at the federal and local levels, have identified perc as a probable carcinogen, along with the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
Perc can be inhaled and absorbed through the skin, with exposure linked to a variety of short-term health ailments including nausea, headaches and breathing problems, long-term damage to the liver and kidneys as well as respiratory and neurological problems.
Just last week a Missouri municipality enlisted an environmental company to drill a series of monitoring wells after perc was detected in the groundwater. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources told a local newspaper that the site had once been home to a dry-cleaning business. Similar contamination - in ground, water and air - has been turning up in communities across Canada and the US, prompting a series of studies and assorted battles over who is responsible for the clean-up. Then there are the existing facilities, with an estimated 80 per cent to 85 per cent of those in the US alone using perc.
As more has become known about this chemical over the past dozen years or so, governments on both sides of the Atlantic are enacting policies aimed at phasing out its use over the coming years. As that happens, green dry-cleaning alternatives have been popping up all over the West to meet demand. Opinions on how "eco-friendly" they are vary, but most experts seem to tilt towards a process that involves using biodegradable soap and water. Seinfeld must be chuckling, because this method is called "wet" cleaning.
Here in the Middle East, almost all dry-cleaners still use traditional methods. I pass local shops all the time in Abu Dhabi, wondering about the effect on the health of staff clustered inside their small spaces, being exposed to such chemicals on a daily basis, not to mention the run-off from their operations on the surrounding area.
Things are changing for the better, however, and as with other sectors, the market is starting to demand change and businesses are forming to deliver it. Just last month, for example, Blossom Dry Cleaning - one of the first in the region to offer "wet cleaning" - opened in Dubai Marina.
After starting his career in India, Preeth Saphyadevan worked as a laundry manager in some of Dubai's five-star hotels before becoming interested in branching out onto his own. He was aware that the business used some pretty harsh chemicals to do its work, including perc, and began following as the European Union sought to limit its use.
He began looking for alternatives and eventually settled on a modified dry-cleaning machine that he had shipped from Belgium, one that uses water and detergent with a neutral pH factor. The machine cost about 30 per cent more than regular machines, he said. The end result is comparable with other local dry-cleaners, and he can offer it at a price that is below some of the bigger names.
"The cleanliness and freshness is amazing and you can have a great fragrance, too," he said.
Saphyadevan gets extra points for swathing that clean laundry in biodegradable plastic recommended by Dubai Municipality.
Of course, we don't all live in the Dubai Marina, and that means getting creative. I am not a huge conspiracy theorist, but it is becoming increasingly accepted that most clothes labelled "dry-clean only" can actually be treated as delicates - washed gently by hand and hung to dry. If you are not sure what can handle a home wash, just test a corner.
In her book Ecoholic Home, the Canadian green expert Adria Vasil recommends the more expensive - albeit long-term and water-efficient - option of purchasing a steam-based washer and dryer. In addition to regular wash cycles, these use steam to clean clothes and remove wrinkles. Another option is to dry-clean what you have and pledge to avoid "dry-clean only" purchases in the future. After all, as traditional dry-cleaning with suspect chemicals is gradually phased out, so too will be the designation. If you must dry-clean items, make sure to remove them from the plastic covering immediately and let them air out for several days before putting them away.
Find more tips on eco-friendly living from the Green Queen.
Eco buy: The Laundress garment care products
The problem with dry-cleaning inspired the New Yorkers Lindsey Wieber Boyd and Gwen Whiting, the founders of The Laundress, to create a range of eco-friendly speciality detergents and fabric care products. "We knew about 90 per cent of our items that were all labelled 'dry clean only' were washable," says Wieber Boyd. "We knew we could eliminate the need for expensive dry-cleaning with toxic chemicals. We just needed the products."
All Laundress products are 100 per cent biodegradable and each is designed to gently care for individual fabrics (including silk, wool and cashmere) with the most effective plant-based ingredients, scenting them only with a blend of essential oils. The range also includes a stain remover and even has an all-purpose bleach alternative to safely whiten, brighten and disinfect. Highly concentrated to reduce packaging, all are free from artificial colours, dyes or unnecessary additives such as phthalates, phosphates and parabens. Not only are their bottles made from recyclable plastic packaging (the company also recycles all its packaging/shipping components), but they also look pretty chic in your laundry room.
A selection of the range is available in the bathroom department at Bloomingdales, Dubai Mall, 04 350 5333.
Anyone who has used a local laundry on a regular basis will find they are left with more hangers than they know what to do with. One of my very first months here I gathered up all those I didn't need and marched them back to the cleaners. Sure, I encountered confusion and statements such as "It's not possible", but I have forced my hangers back on a variety of cleaners ever since. If more people do this, then hopefully laundries will catch on to the idea and we can stop a steady flow of hangers to the country's overburdened landfills.