Over the past few years there has been increasing interest in the developing field of wetcleaning. However, it may come as a surprise to many that wetcleaning has always been part of the service provided by some cleaners, particularly those working at the high end of the industry. In fact, wetcleaning pre-dates drycleaning – prior to the development of the industrial chemical industry in the early 1800s when a number of relatively inexpensive organic solvents became available, all cleansing of textiles was carried out using water.

It was recorded in 1890 that it took 1½ hours to wetclean a suit and 1½ hours to press it, whereas drycleaning took ½ hour and pressing 1 hour. One hundred years on from that,  in the early 1990s, there was renewed industry interest in wetcleaning. Up-to-date wetcleaning machines and humidity controlled tumble dryers were developed together with sophisticated, low mechanical action and low temperature process structures made possible by the computer controls on the new machines. Special low temperature detergents designed to minimise risk of shrinkage were produced and also products for wetcleaning suede and leather items.

Unfortunately, due to over-hype and unrealistic promotional publicity surrounding the new technology, many people new to the cleaning industry were encouraged to invest and set up wetcleaning businesses on the high street – a decision that some would regret.  Wetcleaners who lacked any background experience in textile aftercare soon found that some garments and fabrics were not responding to water-based processing in the way they had been encouraged to expect, leading to many legitimate claims for compensation and in some cases bankruptcy. However, it is has to be said that those who were well trained, particularly drycleaners who used the new wetcleaning technologies to supplement their drycleaning production capability, found that wetcleaning could and did produce some excellent results.

Generally, textiles looked clean and bright and smelled fresh but that in many cases finishing took significantly longer than with items that had been dry cleaned; furthermore, skilled finishers were needed if good standards of finish were to be achieved.  After the initial interest, uptake of the new systems gradually declined, mainly I would say because of the difficulties experienced by those who lacked experience and/or training and who expected far more from the technology than it could deliver.

In 2010 interest in wet cleaning reawakened due mainly to increasing costs and environmental pressures on drycleaning solvents, namely perchloroethylene. Several manufacturers produced a new generation of state-of-the-art wetcleaning machines and a lot of work was done by the detergent manufacturers to enhance the safety of textiles in water based systems with the addition of fabric lubricants, softeners, and buffering agents. In addition, sophisticated steam/air finishers designed to stretch and tension garments have been developed to improve finishing standards. This has culminated in wetcleaning systems that are capable of producing significantly improved safety in terms of items which are designed specifically for dry cleaning, with improved soil and stain removal and finishing equipment capable of producing high standards of finish on wet cleaned structured garments.


Environmental Issues

It has always been claimed that wetcleaning is environmentally more acceptable than drycleaning and this remains the case today.  However, there are no independent, in-depth, definitive studies evaluating in environmental terms the issues surrounding both wet- and drycleaning. In my view, the claims made in respect of environmental benefits for wetcleaning are difficult to support and in the absence of any independent research of both systems, it is possible that any future research might even prove that the reverse is in fact true.  



I would like to make clear at this stage that I am not qualified to make any definitive environmental statements in relation to drycleaning versus wet cleaning, as are very few others in our industry. Nevertheless, in the interests of impartiality, I think that there is a number of issues that we should all be aware of when considering the environmental impact of both systems. I believe that it is extremely difficult to defend any statement that asserts that wetcleaning is more environmentally friendly than drycleaning as recent issues relating to plastics in the oceans and in the water supply now need to be considered.

There is no doubt at all that perchloroethylene, the most widely used dry cleaning solvent globally is, along with many other chemicals, an environmental hazard and it is classified by the EPA. as ‘a likely human carcinogen’. When present in the atmosphere it is thought to have a half-life of around 96 days and decomposes in the air to form toxic products, phosgene among others (a gas that was used in the trenches during World War I).  When the solvent is absorbed into and deeply penetrates the soil it can have a half-life of many years and can and does leach to groundwater and can thus contaminate the public water supply. A small quantity of perc will dissolve in water to the extent of 275mg/L. Perc is an anaesthetic and if inhaled at high concentrations by industry workers it will cause drowsiness followed by loss of consciousness and finally by death if those affected are not removed to a fresh air environment.  If exposed to red heat the solvent decomposes to form phosgene gas and hydrochloric acid and even though it is not flammable, in the event of fire, there can be a serious risk to health.

These are of course serious issues but they do need to be seen in the light of the year-on-year decline in the volume of dry cleaning since the end of World War II and the fact that modern perc machines are constructed to contain any liquid solvent escapes and have many safety features to avoid solvent vapour losses. They are also easily capable of cleaning well in excess of 80kg of work per litre of solvent used; whereas in the early 1960s a good figure for perc was around 25kgs per litre.  There are of course other solvents in use in the UK; in fairly widespread use here are hydrocarbon and Green Earth (cyclo siloxane). Being flammable, the risk of fire or explosion is the serious environmental risk with hydrocarbon and to a much lesser extent with Green Earth. In the past there were many fires and explosions associated with the use of white spirit – a very similar solvent to today’s hydrocarbon solvent. Hydrocarbon machines like those used for perk are now mounted on containment tanks to prevent loss of liquid solvent from the machine environs and the fire hazard has been addressed.



One of the major selling points for wetcleaning is that it is a ‘green’ alternative to dry cleaning. Although water is no- toxic and it is claimed that chemicals used in wet cleaning are also ‘environmentally friendly’ the same cannot be said for the effluent produced by the wetcleaning process or for that matter any other form of water based processing.

While it is accepted that much of the soiling matter and staining found on textiles is not of a hazardous nature some of it is, for example nicotine from cigarette smoke, soiling or stains from used motor oil and soiling or stains that arise from viral or biological contamination, and any residues left in the garment as a result of production in weaving and dyeing the fabric.  In view of the low temperatures involved in wet cleaning there is no thermal disinfection during the wash cycle and the uncontrolled contaminated waste wash liquor together with the detergents used and any pre-spotting products go straight down the drain to the water works where considerable public expense is incurred in an effort to clean up the effluent from all sources.

Perhaps, of more serious concern, is the realisation by the scientific community that virtually all types of plastic material, including man-made fibres, are contaminating the world’s oceans and waterways. Microscopic particles removed during wetcleaning and washing processes are adding to the increasing quantities of plastic waste being released into the environment. Microfibre has already been found to be present in fish and it is understood that water treatment facilities are not capable of removing all microfibre contamination.  In Europe, microfibre has been found in 72% of tap water supplies and in the US the figure is 94% so it can only be a matter of time before the authorities take steps, yet to be developed, to prevent microfibre contamination of our water supplies. This may or may not prove to be a very difficult problem to resolve and could well involve industrial, commercial and domestic laundry.

In my view, it is therefore not safe to assume that wetcleaning or drycleaning is more environmentally friendly one than the other. On the one hand, in drycleaning the effluent in the form of the detergents and chemicals used in the cleaning process plus all the soiling and staining released is mainly contained in the still residue in the form of controlled waste; whereas with wetcleaning the contaminated waste water is uncontrolled. There is still much to be learned before we can say definitively which system is more attuned to environmental safety.

• Part 2 appears in the April UK issue of LCN


Roger Cawood, a well-known industry personality, consultant, writer and trainer, first entered the drycleaning industry in 1963 with Clarks Dyeworks,  a large drycleaning, dyeing and laundering, business operating from Hallcroft Works in Retford, Nottinghamshire. The drycleaning factory served 150 receiving shops spread throughout Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire. “In those days,” he says, “we handled large numbers of wedding dresses, ball gowns, designer garments and high value items some of which required extensive tailoring prior to cleaning.  These were all handled in a specialist service department which had at its disposal, in addition to drycleaning, extensive wetcleaning facilities.

“In the 1960s many sequins were made of gelatin which is badly damaged if subjected to steam or water treatments.  Many garments were wetcleaned by hand on marble tables using special low titre soaps and other items, such as hats and gloves, were hand cleaned with brushes in white spirit. It is interesting to note that the wetcleaning machines we used exposed garments to extremely low levels of mechanical action at least equivalent to today’s most up to date equipment.”