Ancient Greeks and Romans used grease-absorbent earths and sands on clothing; the term “dry-cleaning” was likely coined as a result. Interestingly, this is where the term “fuller’s earth” originated. A fuller was a textile worker who, among other things, kneaded these materials into woollen cloth to absorb oils as part of the finishing process.
Before dry cleaning with solvents was an option, garments were taken apart, cleaned, dyed and reassembled. This is why dry cleaning establishments used to be called “cleaners & dyers”.
In the early days, the most common dry cleaning solvents were flammable and included turpentine, benzene, naphtha, and even gasoline!
The first commercial dry cleaning plant was opened in Paris, France in 1845. Mechanized dry cleaning machines were invented in Scotland about 1869. These operations were later banned from some large cities, including Paris, due to fire concerns.
The trend toward neighbourhood dry cleaning shops was made possible by the development of non-flammable solvents (such as perc) in the 1920s (trichloroethylene), 1930s (perc and carbon tetrachloride). Carbon tetrachloride was discontinued for this use in the 1940s due to concerns over its toxicity.
Self-service, coin-operated dry cleaning facilities using perc were introduced in the 1950s. Imagine the environmental legacy of these operations that required the manual transfer of solvent saturated clothes from the washer to the dryer!
By the 1970s evidence of the health and environmental effects of perc were mounting. This caused concerns in the dry cleaning industry and helped to lead to a decline overall, compounding the effects of the widespread adoption of blue jeans and polyester fashions that were washable at home.
In the 1980s, fluorinated hydrocarbons, such as trichlorotrifluoroethane, were introduced as dry cleaning solvents in some countries.
About 1 million tonnes of perc were produced globally in 1985. About half as much was produced in 1990.
In 1994 a Priority Substance List review concluded that perc was entering the environment in amounts that may be harmful to the environment.
A Regulation aimed at reducing perc releases into the environment from dry cleaning facilities became a Canadian law in 2003.
Starting in 2007 perc was banned from new dry cleaning machines in California and is currently being phased out entirely there and in many other jurisdictions.
Modern dry cleaning solutions aiming for a “greener” approach include the use of pressurized , liquid carbon dioxide or silicone based cleaning solutions that are considered nontoxic.
Replacing a perc dry cleaning machine today with one using less toxic solvents may cost operators $50,000 to $100,000.