Dear Umbra,

I am aware of how polluting regular dry cleaners can be and therefore make a point to wash clothes at home. Recently, however, my charming cat peed on my comforter. I was wondering if you knew of any environmentally friendly ways to clean “dry clean only” clothes or, in this case, comforters.

Falls Church, Va.

Dearest Heidi,

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I’ve seen feather comforters with both dry-cleaning and home-washer options, so be sure to read the tag. If home washing is an option, plain vinegar in the washer may help remove the odor. Spot application of diluted white vinegar may also work. Give it a few tries, and completely dry the area. If that doesn’t work, local health-food and/or pet shops should carry enzymatic cleaning products for pet odors and stains. These are certainly preferable to commercial dry cleaning.

That darn cat!

In keeping with our oh-so-disposable lifestyle, you may see little “home dry cleaning” kits available at your local purveyor of individually wrapped products (you know, Target, Rite Aid, etc.). These involve a bag, a sheet, a dryer, and no carcinogenic perchloroethylene. Allow me to quote a vendor: “The special FreshCare™ Dryer-Activated Cloth works with your dryer to create a fiber-permeating mist that helps clean odors like smoke away.” It works with your dryer, Heidi, in a beautiful collaboration. But from what I’ve read, these bags basically steam and perfume the fabric, and any actual cleaning needs to be done by hand. I suspect that they are basically useless, and I recommend passing them by.

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If vinegar and enzymes fail you, the other hope is the new professional clothes-washing trend, “wet cleaning.” Cleaning businesses purchase computer-controlled fabric-washing equipment the likes of which you and I have never seen: four extract speeds, air bubble power, 89 user-defined programs, residual moisture control sensors … and that’s only the beginning. Wet cleaning is environmentally preferable to dry cleaning (not to mention retro cool!). Dry cleaning relies on the solvent perchloroethylene, which is responsible for what you might call a laundry list of problems: It’s a probable carcinogen, reduces sperm count, probably causes headaches, nausea, and miscarriages, accumulates in fatty tissue, and concentrates up the food chain. “Dry” cleaning means immersing clothing in this persistent toxic organochlorine. That’s why we should avoid owning any fabric that requires dry cleaning, and should urge all of our cleaning establishments to transition to wet-cleaning equipment.

Look out for a wet cleaner at your dry cleaners, or elsewhere in your neighborhood. I also highly recommend asking cleaning professionals for counsel. They clean stuff for a living and may be happy to advise you on how to do it at home. Although they may not have an environmental bent, they may know certain techniques that have been lost to the layperson. Perhaps a secret wrist motion is the key.


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