After an interminable winter—the cruelest in recent memory—our side of the planet is, at long last, noticeably tilting toward the sun. Long-suffering Chicagoans, who now know they'll safely get through the day with just a sweater or three, can finally release their death-grips on the down parkas. It's an optimistic time of year, but a tricky one for figuring out how to dress. Remaining comfortable through 30-degree nights and 60-degree days necessitates a clothing system akin to a Mexican seven-layer dip.
Still, the occasional April snow flurry isn't enough to dissuade me from pulling out my spring wardrobe on the first sunny day after the vernal equinox. Rifling through my boxes of summer dresses and tank tops, I came across a daunting cache of sweat, grass and wine-stained items labeled "dry clean only"; the time had come for my annual trip to the cleaners.
In years past, I took my duds to the closest dry cleaner without a thought beyond the hole it would create in my wallet. This was before I knew the source of that distinct, freshly dry-cleaned aroma. The smell emanating from most dry cleaners—and clinging to the clothes treated in them—is from a chemical called perchlorethylene , or perc, a known carcinogen that can cause (in addition to cancer) liver damage, kidney damage and memory loss with prolonged exposure. Perc is used as a primary cleaning agent by about 90-percent of dry cleaners. It can be released into the air, settle into soil and seep into waterways, both above and below ground. Those most at risk are people living above or next to a dry cleaner and, of course, the employees.
This doesn't mean we can never dribble coffee on our white linen pants again; there are alternatives to conventional dry cleaning. Greener Cleaner, a chain of environmentally safe cleaners founded by Noam Frankel some 13 years ago, treats dry clean only fabrics without perc. The method: computer monitored wet cleaning with natural soaps. Greener Cleaner follows a precise cold-water process originally developed in Germany and extensively tested by the Center for Neighborhood Technology; the process involves no agitation, is safe for almost any fabric—including rugs, comforters and leather—and results in odor-free clothes that are softer and brighter than those treated by conventional dry cleaners.
Five Greener Cleaner branches can be found around Chicago, offering pickup and delivery service into the suburbs. I gathered my soiled threads and brought them to the one under the Damen Blue Line stop. The first thing I noticed about the place was the smell: There wasn't one. The second was a rack where customers could leave their old hangers for reuse. As the girl behind the counter examined and tagged my skirts and shorts, I asked if there were any fabrics they couldn't clean. "We had one guy come in with a Frank the Bunny costume—you know, from 'Donnie Darko,'" she said. "It's made out of some sort of plastic. And we can clean that."
The price was comparable to most other dry cleaners, which is to say not cheap but reasonable, so long as you're not in the habit of having your entire wardrobe professionally cleaned on a semi-daily basis. My spring clothes came back soft, brilliant and smelling like fabric instead of a laboratory. Now all I need is a few warm days.
It took a move from the regimented lawnscapes of the suburbs to the congestion of a major metropolis for Sharon to look twice at what she puts in the trash, down the sink and into her own body. She reports fortnightly on her endeavors to change "greening" from calculated deviation to a practicable way of life. You can contact her here.