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Last updated: 25 April 2024

Dry Cleaning and Laundry Service Environmental Impact: An In-depth Analysis

A traditional dry cleaning shop with racks of clothing covered in plastic, juxtaposed with a lush green forest background, symbolising the environmental impact of dry cleaning

Dry cleaning, a common practice for maintaining delicate fabrics, has raised environmental concerns. It is less eco-friendly than people may think. The chemicals used in the process are toxic and can cause harm to the environment if not disposed of properly. 

Most laundry services use chemicals that threaten air quality, water, and soil.

It relies heavily on chemicals, notably perchloroethylene (PERC), a solvent that efficiently removes stains. The use of PERCs raises significant environmental and health concerns. For instance, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), approximately 36,000 (70%) professional garment care facilities in the United States use PERC as their primary cleaning solvent.

The adoption of eco-friendly practices in dry cleaning can be a game-changer, significantly mitigating its environmental impact and offering a glimmer of hope for a more sustainable future.

The UK dry cleaning industry, worth a staggering £1.4 billion as of 2023, underscores its economic significance. However, with the industry projected to reach a value of approximately £57.8 billion by 2027, the need for a swift shift towards more sustainable practices is becoming increasingly urgent for the sake of our environment and economy. 

This article delves into the environmental footprint of dry cleaning, supported by statistics, trends, and expert insights. By providing a well-rounded discussion on the environmental implications regarding garment care, the article will explore innovative and eco-friendly alternatives emerging in response to environmental concerns.

What Do We Mean By Dry Cleaning Exactly

Dry cleaning is a cleaning process for clothing and textiles using a chemical solvent rather than water. Despite its name, dry cleaning is not actually "dry"; the clothes get wet but with a solvent that performs the cleaning action. The solvent used is typically tetrachloroethylene (perchloroethylene), which the industry calls "PERC".

This method cleans delicate fabrics that cannot withstand the rough and tumble of a washing machine and dryer. It helps prevent damage like stretching or shrinking and is ideal for delicate fabrics such as silk, wool, and velvet. 

Collage showing the evolution of dry cleaning, from early 20th century dry cleaner using rudimentary cleaning chemicals, transitioning to a modern eco-friendly dry cleaning machine using green solvents, symbolising the industry's progress and environmental responsibility over time

Moreover, it also eliminates the need for more time-consuming hand washing. Most dry cleaners also offer services like laundry for items like shirts and household textiles such as drapes and area rugs. 

A dry cleaner can reduce perchloroethylene use by 70% by converting from transfer equipment to a closed-loop dry-to-dry system.

Historically, solvents like gasoline and kerosene were used, but more sustainable options have been developed due to safety and environmental concerns. These include silicone-based solvents, liquid carbon dioxide, and hydrocarbon solvents, which aim to reduce the environmental impact of traditional dry cleaning practices.

However, the improper disposal of PERC and other chemicals has resulted in widespread environmental contamination at many dry cleaning sites.

The Environmental Impact of Dry Cleaning

The traditional dry cleaning solvent, perc, is a volatile organic compound (VOC) that can contribute to air pollution and has been associated with various health risks, including cancer and neurological effects. 

Notably, it uses chemicals like perchloroethylene (PERC), a solvent linked to various environmental and health issues. Annually, the industry emits substantial amounts of PERC into the atmosphere, contributing to pollution and health risks.

The industry also generates hazardous waste, including contaminated water and sludge, requiring careful disposal to prevent further environmental damage. This is characterised by its steady demand, attributed to the essential nature of the services it provides, which remain in constant need regardless of economic conditions.

Environmental Impact of Common Dry Cleaning Solvents

Solvent TypeToxicityBiodegradabilityVOC EmissionEnvironmental Impact
Perchloroethylene (PERC)HighLowHighSignificant
HydrocarbonsModerateModerateModerateModerate
Liquid Carbon DioxideLowHighLowMinimal
Silicone-BasedLowHighLowMinimal
This table represents the different environmental impacts of dry-cleaning solvents.

What is so bad about Dry Cleaning for the environment?

Dry cleaning involves chemicals that are dangerous not only to the environment but also to human health. The primary solvent used, PERC, is a toxic chemical with extensive, harmful impacts:

  • Air and Water Pollution: PERC releases volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the atmosphere, contributing to smog and air pollution. It also contaminates groundwater and soil, posing risks to wildlife and human populations.
  • Non-Biodegradable Waste: The waste products from dry cleaning, including used solvents and contaminated packaging, are challenging to dispose of and often non-biodegradable, leading to long-term environmental damage.
  • Energy Consumption: Dry cleaning facilities are energy-intensive, contributing significantly to carbon emissions and climate change

What is the impact of Cleaning?

The environmental impact of dry cleaning is multifaceted, affecting air, water, and soil quality. Annually, the industry contributes to significant pollution levels, with perc being a primary culprit.

To provide a clearer picture of the environmental toll of dry cleaning, we analyse its impact from various perspectives:

Total Impact per Year

Globally, dry cleaning releases over 160,000 tonnes of PERC annually. Each year, the UK releases thousands of tonnes of VOCs into the air, consumes millions of kWh of energy, and generates hazardous waste affecting land and water systems. In addition, one ounce of PERC can contaminate 2.5 million gallons of water above regulatory limits and over 650 gallons of hazardous waste per year on average. This contributes significantly to air and water pollution.

Impact per Day

Daily operations across the UK can emit hundreds of kilograms of harmful chemicals and use substantial energy. These activities emit about 438 tonnes of PERC into the environment, accumulating harmful effects over time.

Impact per Usage

Each dry cleaning cycle, on average, releases 15 grams of PERC per garment. Frequent use increases the personal and environmental health risks significantly.

The industry must move towards greener alternatives, such as professional wet cleaning, to mitigate these effects. Switching to greener alternatives like wet cleaning and liquid CO2 is crucial to reducing this £1.5 billion UK industry's massive ecological footprint. Regulatory action and public awareness are needed to drive this transition for a sustainable future.

Environmental Impact Compared to Everyday Things

Globally, the textile care industry contributes millions of tonnes of CO2 annually. In the UK alone, water-related CO2 emissions from laundry activities account for 6% of the total. When you consider the global scale, the impact is staggering. For instance, dry cleaning a suit emits more CO2 than driving a car for approximately 15 kilometres.

To put it into perspective, let's compare the CO2 emissions from dry cleaning and laundry services to everyday activities like driving a car, using a smartphone, and even eating a hamburger.

ActivityCO2 Emissions (kg CO2e)
Dry Cleaning (per garment)5.3kg CO2e
Laundry (per load)3.3kg CO2e
Driving a Car (per km)0.27kg CO2e
Using a Smartphone (per year)1.25kg CO2e
Eating a Hamburger2.5kg CO2e
One hour of television watching0.034 kg CO2e

These figures reveal that dry cleaning a single garment emits more CO2 than driving a car for 26.5 km. Similarly, doing a load of laundry is equivalent to consuming over a hamburger and a half in terms of CO2 emissions.

The comparison of CO2 emissions of laundry services to everyday activities highlights the importance of choosing eco-friendly options.

Top Countries with Dry Cleaning Services

The industry's impact varies across economies, with some countries leading in market size and growth. Countries leading in the industry are actively transitioning to safer, more sustainable practices. 

Let's explore the largest economies contributing significantly to the dry cleaning sector, providing insights into their market dynamics and environmental considerations.

Leading Economies in Dry Cleaning Services

  1. United States: The US dominates the global market, which is driven by high consumer demand and many service providers.
  2. China: With rapid urbanisation and increasing disposable income, China's dry cleaning market is experiencing significant growth with a shift towards non-toxic solvents and modern, less polluting equipment.
  3. United Kingdom: The UK market is characterised by a strong presence of eco-friendly dry cleaning services, reflecting growing environmental awareness.
  4. Japan: Japan's market is notable for its technological advancements in dry cleaning processes and machinery.
  5. Germany: Germany's dry cleaning industry benefits from a robust economy and a high standard of living, leading to steady market demand. In addition, there is a strong emphasis on environmental regulations influencing its practices with a high adoption rate of wet cleaning methods over traditional solvent-based options.

Market Size and Growth Projections

CountryMarket Size (2023)Projected Growth (2024-2030)
United States£56 billion3.5% annually
China£16.7 billion7% annually
Germany£5.1 billion4% annually
United Kingdom£5 billion4% annually
Japan£4 billion2.5% annually

Regional Market Shares and Growth Projections

According to a study, the Asia-Pacific region emerged as the largest shareholder in the dry cleaning and laundry services market in 2022, with a share of around 35%. It is projected to maintain its lead. The global market is projected to reach approximately £83.8 billion by 2030, growing at a CAGR of 5.5% from 2022 to 2030.

Asia-Pacific

  • China: Dominates the Asia-Pacific market with significant growth due to its large population and increasing disposable income. China's market is forecasted to grow at a 7% CAGR, significantly contributing to the region's dominance.
  • Overall Market Share: Asia-Pacific led in 2022 with around 35% of the global market.

North America

  • United States: The market size was approximately £14.4 billion in 2022, holding a dominant position globally. The US market is expected to continue its significant global contribution.
  • Overall: Despite regulations, over 80% of dry cleaners in Canada still use PERC. This highlights the industry's significant environmental footprint in major economies.

Europe

  • Germany: Expected to grow at a CAGR of approximately 5.1%.
  • Europe also plays a significant role in the global market, with considerable growth expected in the coming years.

Sixty per cent of cleaning shops in Germany use wet cleaning now."

Central and South America

  • Brazil is the largest market in this region for dry-cleaning and laundry services. The anticipated growth rate is 6.7% CAGR, with Brazil being a key contributor.

Middle East and Africa

Here's a breakdown of the largest regional markets:

RegionMarket Size (£ billion)Market Share
Asia Pacific£28.135.26%
North America£26.833.6%
Europe£14.217.8%
Latin America£5.16.4%
Middle East & Africa£5.67.0%
Data source: Grand View Research and The Business Research Company

These insights highlight the dynamic nature of the dry cleaning and laundry services market across different regions. The environment will be significantly affected if something is not done about using harmful chemicals. 

What is the Amount of Energy used in Cleaning Services?

The amount of energy used in dry cleaning services can vary depending on the type of equipment used, the cleaning process, and the efficiency of the machines. According to the US Department of Energy, efficient commercial laundry equipment (with a gas dryer) consumes about 25% less electric energy than conventional equipment.

Service TypeAverage Electricity Use (kWh)Average Water Use (litres)
Residential Cleaning5 - 1050 - 100
Commercial Cleaning20 - 40300 - 500

Further analysis from the California Dry Cleaning Industry Technical Assessment Report reveals the monthly electricity usage of dry cleaning shops, depending on the technology employed. Traditional solvent-based systems, including Perc and other hydrocarbon technologies, typically use around 1,100 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of monthly electricity. In contrast, water-based technologies, such as professional wet cleaning, have demonstrated a reduction in electricity consumption to approximately 600 kWh per month. 

However, CO2 dry cleaning systems, despite their environmental benefits, require higher energy input, with an estimated monthly usage of 1,430 kWh.

The energy consumption for individual washing and drying cycles also varies, with a washer-drier consuming about 1.5 kWh per washing cycle and 4.5 kWh per drying cycle. When translated to the average cost of doing laundry at home, including electricity, water usage, and laundry supplies, this equates to approximately £1.04 per load, based on current exchange rates.

Eco-friendly dry cleaning services are making strides in reducing energy consumption by utilising energy-efficient machinery with low emissions. Incorporating solar panel energy into the operations, mainly through solar thermal systems, presents a promising avenue for significantly reducing energy costs, further enhancing the industry's move towards sustainability and efficiency.

Energy Use in Cleaning Services

RegionElectricity Consumption (kWh)Water Heating (kWh)Chemical Production (kWh)
North America2,000,0001,500,000500,000
Europe1,800,0001,300,000450,000
Asia-Pacific2,500,0002,000,000550,000
Latin America1,200,000900,000300,000
Africa900,000700,000200,000

Note: The data represents an estimated annual consumption for a medium-sized cleaning service company in each region.

Is Dry Cleaning Toxic?

Yes, traditional dry cleaning can be toxic because it uses perchloroethylene (perc), classified as harmful. Exposure to perc may increase the risk of certain cancers, vision problems, and Parkinson's disease.

Another hazardous substance used in some dry cleaning processes is N-propyl bromide, which poses risks to the human reproductive system liver and can cause nerve damage and cancer.

Infographic showing the multi-step dry cleaning process: inspection and pre-treatment, cleaning cycle using chemical solvents, drying and pressing, final inspection and stain removal if needed.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer have classified perc as a likely human carcinogen. Workers in dry cleaning facilities and residents living near these establishments are at a higher risk of exposure.

However, awareness and regulation vary globally. Some regions have begun to phase out perc due to its environmental and health risks, promoting safer alternatives in the industry.

Are Dry Cleaning Products Biodegradable?

Most dry cleaning products are not biodegradable. However, some products are eco-friendly base. These solvents break down more quickly in the environment, reducing long-term pollution and potential harm to wildlife and human health.

For instance, wet and liquid CO2 cleaning are water-based solutions that break down naturally, and no harsh chemicals are used. 

Here's how common dry cleaning solvents affect the environment:

Solvent TypeBiodegradabilityEnvironmental Impact
Perchloroethylene (PERC)NoHigh - toxic to animals, contaminates water
Liquid Carbon DioxideYesLow - no known harmful effects
Silicone-Based SolventsPartialModerate - less toxic than PERC

Innovations in Eco-Friendly Dry Cleaning

The transition to greener dry cleaning methods is gaining momentum globally. These methods minimise the ecological footprint and cater to the increasing consumer demand for sustainable services.

Innovations include:

  • Wet Cleaning: Water-based method that is gentle on clothes and the environment.
  • Liquid CO2 Cleaning: Uses pressurised carbon dioxide in place of PERC.
  • Silicone-Based Solvents: Non-toxic alternatives that degrade into harmless substances.

Professional wet cleaning is a nationwide trend, offering a safer and more sustainable option.

Can Dry Cleaning Be Sustainable?

With modern innovations, yes, it depends on the methods and chemicals used. Many cleaners now use liquid carbon dioxide or silicone-based solvents to minimise environmental impact.

For instance, California and New Jersey lead the charge in the US, committing to phase out PERC by 2023. The UK's Timpson Group is transitioning to GreenEarth solvent and wet cleaning. These changes reflect a growing trend of integrating sustainable practices into the industry worldwide.

Eco-Friendly Dry Cleaning Alternatives

Dry cleaning is one of many ways to treat delicate fabrics. Several eco-friendly alternatives exist that are kinder to the environment and often gentler on your clothes.

Alternatives to Traditional Dry Cleaning

  1. Wet Cleaning: This method uses water and biodegradable detergents, making it safer for the environment and human health. It is effective for cleaning delicate fabrics that traditional dry cleaning can handle without the toxic chemicals.
  2. Liquid CO2 Cleaning: Utilises pressurised liquid carbon dioxide as the cleaning solvent. This method is effective and environmentally friendly, as CO2 is reclaimed from industrial processes and does not contribute to greenhouse gas emissions when adequately contained.
  3. Hand Washing: Simple and traditional and ideal for delicate items. It has the most control and minimal environmental impact.
  4. Silicone-Based Solvents: Known as GreenEarth cleaning, this method uses a non-toxic, biodegradable silicone solvent. It is gentle on clothes and safer for the environment compared to perc.
  5. Ozone Cabinets: These cabinets use ozone gas to sanitise and deodorise clothes without water or chemicals. Ozone is a powerful oxidant that can effectively remove bacteria and odours.
  6. Steam Cleaning: While unsuitable for all fabrics, steam cleaning uses high-temperature steam to clean clothes, effectively removing dirt and killing bacteria without chemical solvents.

Is Dry Cleaning Better Than Its Alternatives?

Traditional dry cleaning often ranks lower in eco-friendliness compared to its alternatives. While it is effective for specific fabrics and stains, its alternatives usually provide equal or superior results without negative impacts. 

Moreover, these methods use less energy and water and are safer for the environment and human health.

Comparative Table of Dry Cleaning and Alternatives

MethodEffectivenessEnvironmental ImpactCost EfficiencyHealth Safety
Traditional Dry CleaningHighNegativeModerateLow
Wet CleaningHighPositiveHighHigh
Liquid CO2 CleaningHighPositiveModerateHigh
Silicone-Based SolventsHighPositiveModerateHigh
Hand WashingModeratePositiveLow High
Ozone CabinetsModeratePositiveHighHigh
Steam CleaningModeratePositiveHighModerate

Exploring these alternatives helps promote a healthier planet. They provide practical solutions without the environmental cost of traditional methods.

Statistics, Facts and Figures About Dry Cleaning

Here's a look at the key statistics that paint a global picture of the dry cleaning industry based on different environmental studies. 

Global Market Value

  • The dry cleaning and laundry service industry is worth approximately £44.5 billion.
  • It is projected to reach £86.4 billion by 2030, growing at a CAGR of 7.0% from 2023 to 2030.
  • It is expected to reach £81.5 billion by 2024, growing at a CAGR of 6.24%.

Environmental Impact

  • Dry cleaning uses solvents like perchloroethylene (PERC), which can contaminate soil and groundwater.
  • PERC exposure is linked to various health risks, including cancer.
  • Synthetic fabrics like polyester release microplastics into oceans during washing and dry cleaning.
  • Dry cleaning releases an estimated 62 million tons of CO2 annually from energy use.
  • The industry is shifting towards more sustainable practices due to environmental concerns.

Usage and Production

  • Over 90% of US dry cleaners are small-business franchises.
  • Over 60% of dry cleaners offer full-service operations, including tailoring and alterations.
  • Over 20% of urban populations use dry cleaning services regularly.
  • Luxury fabric care constitutes approximately 35% of the dry cleaning market.
  • From California to Florida, 50% of US dry cleaning businesses are in the Sun Belt region.
  • The US's coin-operated laundry and dry cleaners industry is valued at £3.56 billion.
  • California set a 2023 deadline to ban PERC, while France's ban takes full effect in 2022.
  • Worldwide solvent production exceeds 500,000 tonnes annually.

Geographic Distribution

  • 50% of the US's dry cleaning businesses are in the Sun Belt, from California to Florida.
  • Asia leads in PERC usage due to its extensive textile industry, posing severe environmental challenges.
  • Asia Pacific emerged as the largest market for dry cleaning, with a 35% share of the market revenue.
  • Europe is expected to see significant growth in the market, with a focus on sustainable practices.
  • Oceania has the smallest impact, with fewer facilities and lower chemical use, indicating a shift towards sustainable practices.
  • Africa has the least developed industry, reflected in the lower figures across all categories.

Workforce Demographics

  • The average age of dry cleaner employees is 48 years old.
  • The industry employs nearly 20,974 individuals, reflecting its substantial role in the job market.
  • Approximately 71.5% of laundry and dry-cleaning workers in the US are women.
  • Caucasian workers are the most common ethnicity among dry cleaners in the US.

Economic Impact and Industry Trends

  • The sector predominantly comprises family-owned businesses, with an estimated 97% being family-operated.
  • The industry faces challenges, such as a projected 25% decline in employment from 2020 to 2030
  • The UK market has seen a 19.1% increase in 2023 alone, reaching a market size of £1.4 billion.
  • Innovations in the sector, particularly in eco-friendly practices, foster a new wave of growth.
  • Local ownership is crucial for maintaining customer loyalty and adapting quickly to market changes.

In Summary

This concise overview highlights the massive scale of the dry cleaning industry and its reliance on toxic solvents like PERC.

However, the industry is evolving, with safer, eco-friendly alternatives gaining traction. Regulatory actions and consumer demand for sustainable practices drive this change, promising a cleaner future for the dry cleaning industry.

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