Fabric cleaning, like other human activities, results in impacts to the environment and poses other external costs to society. Cleaning and reuse of garments seems intuitively more environmentally sound than acquiring clothes for single wear and disposal provided that the costs of cleaning are less than purchasing new clothing. However, a more complex issue concerns the choice of cleaning method that would impose the lowest long term costs on society and is, thus, more sustainable.
The textile cleaning industry in Canada and the USA has recently shown an interest in the application of aqueous or water-based cleaning methods, as a complement and partial replacement for the more traditional chemical ‘dry’ cleaning. Perchloroethylene (perc) is by far the most common chemical cleaning solvent used by commercial dry cleaning establishments throughout North America. Given the desirable cleaning characteristics of perc, many participants in the industry believe that some combination of these compounds will always be utilized.
A dry cleaning ‘design for the environment’ research project by the United States Environmental Protection Agency examined the relative costs and market acceptability of water-based cleaning. This project and another pilot project by Environment Canada have demonstrated the practicality and acceptability of wet cleaning as a partial substitute for much of what is currently being cleaned with the more traditional chemical technology. These efforts provide the basis and point of departure for his paper which addresses the short and longer term costs associated with these alternatives.
Wet cleaning is a viable and cost effective substitute for much of the commercial clothes cleaning that is demanded in Canada. The relative advantages of wet cleaning are enhanced and become more apparent when longer term life cycle costs are considered.