By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Dry cleaning is a bit of a misnomer — the process isn’t dry at all. A liquid called perchloroethylene (“perc” for short) is used to clean your precious garments in huge washing machines, and if even a little bit spills it can seep right through concrete or cement floors and contaminate the water table. Imagine what it can do to your body. Perc has been suspected of causing several kinds of cancer and reproductive disorders (including infertility), as well as brain, liver and kidney damage. Even clothes washed in perc can “off gas” or release toxins into your home. The South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) says that people who live near dry-cleaning facilities face a higher risk of cancer than those who live near oil refineries or power plants. And here’s the kicker: Perc doesn’t get your clothes as clean as you’d think. It’s mostly effective in treating oil-based stains, which, according to Pollution Prevention Center (PPC) director Peter Sinsheimer, account for just 10 percent of the dirt and muck that show up on dry-cleanable fabrics.
But don’t throw in the cashmere yet. In 2003, a regional rule went into effect requiring all new dry-cleaning businesses — and existing businesses adding equipment — to install machines that use nonperc cleaners. And as of July 2004, any dry-cleaning machine that needs replacing or is 15 or more years old must be swapped out for nonperc models. This is why you’ve started to see some dry cleaners around town tacking up signs claiming that they’re “green.” How green are they? That all depends on the process the cleaner is using.
There are four perc alternatives being used in Southern California: hydrocarbon, GreenEarth solvent, CO2 and professional wet cleaning. Hydrocarbon cleaning uses synthetic hydrocarbon solvents in a machine similar to that used in traditional dry cleaning. It’s nontoxic, but the AQMD says it contains volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that release into the air and mix with other pollutants to form ozone smog. Which means it’s a lot better than perc, but still does damage to the environment.
GreenEarth solvent is silicone-based, and early tests revealed it is nontoxic and contains no VOCs. But a recent study has raised questions about the health risks of GreenEarth, so more testing is needed to determine whether it’s really a method worth pursuing; the AQMD, which offers financial incentives to businesses that eliminate perc cleaning from their premises, currently does not offer grants for cleaners making the switch to GreenEarth (grants are given for hydrocarbon, CO2 and professional wet cleaning).
CO2 cleaning is a process in which carbon dioxide, produced as a byproduct from places like fertilizer manufacturers, is heated until it becomes an odorless nontoxic cleaning liquid. Turning the gas into a liquid doesn’t create any more CO2, so the process doesn’t contribute to global warming. But even though it’s considered an excellent alternative to traditional perc cleaning, you don’t see too many businesses using CO2 yet. The machines can cost up to $90,000 more than traditional machines, so even with AQMD incentives the equipment is cost-prohibitive for most. (In contrast, hydrocarbon and GreenEarth machines cost $10,000 more than traditional perc machines.)
The most widespread method seems to be professional wet cleaning, a German process developed in 1991, which uses nontoxic biodegradable soap and water and is said to get clothes cleaner than perc cleaning because it attacks water-based spots and smells (i.e., the majority of the stains that need cleaning). Even better for business owners, computerized wet-cleaning machines cost $3,000 less than traditional perc machines and users have reported saving up to 45 percent on their electricity bills. Plus, they don’t have to pay for toxic-waste removal, so there are more savings to be had.
“The machines work beautiful,” says Inez Mireles, manager at Venice’s Del Mar Cleaners, where the equipment has been in use for four years. “They’re better for the environment and for the people who work with them. And it’s better for the clothes — even smells go away.”
Here in the Southland, there are about 45 wet cleaners (some so-called “dedicated” wet cleaners use the process exclusively; other mixed shops offer it alongside other methods), but across the U.S. there are only about 20 wet cleaners. The people who run the Pollution Prevention Center (PPC), based at the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute at L.A.’s Occidental College, like wet cleaning so much they’re working with clothing manufacturers to replace “dry clean only” tags with “wet clean only” labels. They’re also trying to get designers to use fabrics that don’t need to be dry cleaned at all — the truth is, many things don’t have to be dry cleaned. You can hand-wash wool and lay it flat to dry.
Meanwhile, in 2005, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) came up with a wet-cleaning-care symbol (a “w” with a circle around it), and a standardized testing procedure (to make sure the process works on specific fabrics) has been developed and it is expected to be put into use worldwide.
“[Labeling] clothes ‘dry clean only’ is misleading now,” says PPC director Peter Sinsheimer. “It means washing [clothes] in the really bad to the not-so-good, when they could be cleaned in something great.”