An Alternative to Dry Cleaning that Is Safe For You, Your Clothes and Your Cleaner
Provided by the Center for Neighborhood Technology
The Center for Neighborhood Technology is a Chicago-based, non-profit organization dedicated to promoting economic opportunity in urban neighborhoods through pollution prevention, recycling, energy efficiency and public transportation. CNT first became involved in professional cleaning in 1992 when it completed an independent evaluation of the wet cleaning processes used for decades by a successful London cleaner. CNT's wet cleaning demonstration project is being conducted in cooperation with the EPA and will involve a variety of activities, including:
- Developing a wet cleaning shop in Chicago
- Further testing of wet cleaning processes
- Monitoring results from dry cleaners who are integrating wet cleaning processes into their services
- Coordinating the development of wet cleaning training materials
- Providing technical assistance to dry cleaners who want to add wet cleaning processes in their shops
Professional cleaners are an essential part of our communities. Their services save us time and keep our clothes in top notch condition. Most are family businesses, and many have been good neighbors for decades. Dry cleaning has become such a routine part of our lives that we rarely think about it.
But growing evidence that the primary chemical solvent used to dry clean cloths - perchloroethylene, or "perc" for short - can cause damage to our health and environment is making many people think differently about dry cleaning. Dry cleaners, industry regulators and others are searching for safer cleaning methods. To aid in this effort the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT), in cooperation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has launched a national demonstration project to educate dry cleaners and consumers about "wet cleaning".
Wet cleaning is a water-based alternative to dry cleaning. Preliminary results show it is comparable to dry cleaning in both performance and cost.
To demonstrate and further explore wet cleaning, CNT is developing and working with "The Greener Cleaner" - the first shop in the Midwest to professionally clean clothes using only wet cleaning methods.
Through this project and other activities, CNT hopes to give dry cleaners the information and tools they need to move away from perc-based cleaning. The more cleaners learn about alternatives to perc, the faster and smoother the transition to healthier cleaning methods will be.
The Greener Cleaner
A privately-owned wet cleaning shop that is part of CNT's demonstration project, The Greener Cleaner offers Chicagoans professional cleaning in a perc-free environment. For the first time, consumers will be able to learn about wet cleaning and evaluate for themselves which type of cleaning is better for their clothes, families and communities. This shop will also answer many of the questions dry cleaners still have about wet cleaning. At The Greener Cleaner what is usually closely guarded proprietary information will be available for public review. Dry cleaners will be able to review every aspect of the business from cleaning results and customer satisfaction to equipment costs and annual profits. For the first time, they will be able to thoroughly evaluate wet cleaning under real world conditions.
What is Wet Cleaning? Wet cleaning processes include professional, labor-intensive cleaning techniques and high-tech washing and drying machines that use soap and water to clean clothes.
Unlike dry cleaning, where nearly every garment is treated the same, wet cleaning can customize treatment for each garment. The first step in wet cleaning is a close inspection of a garment for dirt and stains. Then, depending on the item's fabric and soiling, a cleaning technician decides how to treat it.
A garment may be spot cleaned, steamed, hand washed, or some combination of those processes. Or the garment may be washed in a computerized washing machine that regulates water temperature and agitation. (These, rather than water alone, are the real culprits that cause clothes to shrink.) Technicians also choose from several methods of drying, including drying cabinets and computer-controlled dryers that carefully monitor the moisture content of garments so as to limit shrinkage.
After cleaning, garments are pressed and finished with techniques similar to those used by dry cleaners.
Why Clothes Shrink. Contrary to popular perception, water alone does not shrink clothes. It's the combination of mechanical action, high temperatures and water that causes fibers to contract. Excessive drying can also shrink clothes. High-tech washers and dryers with computerized controls limit the risk of shrinkage in modern water-based cleaning.
What You May Not Know About Dry Cleaning
Most consumers know very little about how dry cleaning works. You drop off a bundle of crumpled, soiled clothes and several days later those same clothes are neatly hung up and look almost new. So what happens in the meantime?
Dry cleaning is actually similar to home laundering. Your clothes are sorted according to color, stains are pretreated and clothing is thrown into a washing and drying machine. But while your washer uses soap and water, dry cleaning machines are filled with chemical solvent that can leave a pungent smell. And they don't clean clothes thoroughly - even dry cleaners must use water to remove water-based stains like sweat.
These solvents can also cause serious damage. The petroleum-based solvents used by about ten percent (10%) of dry cleaners are toxic and highly flammable. Perc, used by ninety percent (90%) of dry cleaners, can damage the central nervous and reproductive systems, according to recent studies by the EPA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Perc is also a suspected carcinogen.
Workers and those who live near dry cleaning plants are the most likely to experience perc-related health problems. But millions more may be affected when their dry cleaned clothes release perc into their homes, or when they are exposed to contaminated air or water. One of the most prevalent contaminants in urban air, perc is designated a hazardous air pollutant by the Federal government.
There is still disagreement over the degree of danger perc poses to our families and communities. In spite of evidence to the contrary, some industry representatives maintain that the health effects of perc are limited, and that new equipment reduces perc emissions and eliminates any risk.
Amidst all this debate, one thing is for sure: developing and converting to non-hazardous cleaning methods will be better for both dry cleaners and their customers.
So far, tests show wet cleaning is a hit with consumers. The EPA's Dry Cleaning Partnership, which includes the International Fabricare Institute, the Neighborhood Cleaners Association, the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute and Greenpeace, has conducted two tests to measure the performance of wet cleaning. In the first, seven hundred fifty (750) garments were wet cleaned and seven hundred fifty (750) garments were dry cleaned. Without knowing which technology was used, owners of the garments rated wet cleaned clothes as equal to or better than those that were dry cleaned.
In the second test, pairs of identical garments were worn and cleaned three (3) times. Again, participants clearly preferred wet cleaning. Although favorable, the results of these brief tests are too limited to determine conclusively how regular wear would affect the performance of the wet cleaning processes. As part of the demonstration project, CNT is conducting a similar, but broader, test over the course of a year.
Because the EPA's tests evaluated only labor-intensive wet cleaning techniques (which combine spotting, steaming, hand washing and tumble drying), CNT will also gather data on the performance of computerized wet cleaning machines.
To further evaluate the performance of wet cleaning, The Greener Cleaner will also collect and make available feedback from as many of its regular customers as possible. Similar information collected by Environment Canada (the EPA's Canadian equivalent) during a three-month period demonstration project showed that ninety-seven percent (97%) of customers whose clothes had been wet cleaned were satisfied.
Right now the costs to the customer of wet cleaning and dry cleaning are about the same. But that could change as growing regulation and liability continue to drive up the cost of using perc, and business owners pass those increases on to their customers.
Tests have found that wet cleaning can give shop owners a slight economic edge over dry cleaning because it lowers the costs of start-up capital, supplies, equipment and hazardous waste disposal.
According to the EPA, the type of wet cleaning that relies most heavily on skilled labor requires forty-one percent (41%) less capital to install and yields a five percent (5%) higher profit and a seventy-eight percent (78%) higher return on investment. CTN's demonstration project will gather more information about the economics of this and other wet cleaning methods, including the use of computerized washing machines.
Nationwide the dry cleaning industry is already responding to the need for safe cleaning alternatives. Trade associations are beginning to offer training to members, and many individual cleaners are reducing the amount of perc they use. Others are incorporating wet cleaning into their businesses. Ecomat, a Manhattan cleaner that has specialized in wet cleaning for more than a year, is doing well and planning to expand.
CNT's demonstration project is designed to help dry cleaners adapt and stay in business in the face of increasing liability and regulatory pressures relating to perc.
How Green Is Your Cleaner?
Now that you know about dry cleaning, you may be wondering what process your cleaner uses. The best way to find out is to ask. Many dry cleaners have signs in their windows indicating that their business is environmentally sound, but these signs don't mean that the business doesn't use hazardous solvents. The commonly-seen "We Care" symbol, for example, simply means a cleaner disposes of hazardous waste properly. That's good, but it also means the cleaner is probably using perc.
If your local cleaners don't wet clean, request that they investigate it and consider adding it to their services.
Additional Online Resources: Center for Neighborhood Technology Wet Cleaning Home Page