Dry cleaning goes green

"Wet" dry cleaning may be an oxymoron, but environmentally friendly technologies get whites whiter and don’t cost customers more, two Southwest businesspeople say

The business of dry cleaning has a dirty reputation.

Waste from the cleaning process has created EPA Superfund cleanup sites, and the material used in the dry-cleaning process has been linked to various health problems.

And then there’s the smell.

"I had a customer in this week who had just come from a competitor down the street. He said, ‘I went in there, I had to walk right out,’" said Soo Chang, co-owner of Colonial Cleaners in the Kingfield neighborhood.

Colonial is one of two operations in Southwest that have revolutionized their methods to provide an environmentally friendly alternative for customers.

The other is owned by Joe Peterson, who operates two stores: Prestige Cleaners, in the Linden Hills neighborhood, and Uptown Cleaners, in East Isles. "We saved 1,000 gallons of hazardous waste from being produced just in the last year," he said.

New methods

Since the 1950s, the dry-cleaning industry has largely depended on a product called percholoroethylene ("perc" for short), a chlorine-based solvent that is effective because it dissolves fatty and oily substances virtually on contact.

But in recent years, researchers have identified safety issues with perc, linking the substance to an increased risk of miscarriage among cleaning-industry employees. Studies have also associated perc air emissions with increased cancer risk and ingestion of perc with liver and kidney damage. The EPA calls the substance "hazardous" and tightly regulates its use and disposal. Canada and the state of California are considering banning it altogether.

Peterson said the regulations are enough to cause problems for the small business owner.

"There are a large number of restrictions on perc," said Peterson. "It has to be hauled out as hazardous waste; there is lots of paperwork to fill out every day; there are regular

inspections."

While the vast majority of cleaners still use perc, as a practical matter many are considering alternatives.

Five years ago, Colonial was one of three dry cleaners in the country to test a new process called "wet cleaning," which dry-cleans clothes with – get this – water. Colonial was the first cleaner in the state to incorporate wet cleaning.

"I, like everyone else, am trying to save our air and environment," said Chang. "It was selfish, too. I wanted to stay away from the chemicals."

Chang said the customer response was "great."

One year ago, Prestige and Uptown changed over to a process called Green Earth, which uses a silicone product to clean fabrics.

"I needed a new machine," said Peterson, so he looked into various methods. In his research, he came across a totally non-toxic product, produced by G.E. His was the first dry-cleaning operation in the state to completely eliminate the use of perc.

Last October, Colonial also obtained a Green Earth machine and went perc-free. Chang said she now uses a combination of wet cleaning and Green Earth.

Happier customers, happier employees

Both Chang and Peterson rave about the advantages.

Chang said the wet-cleaning process gets whites whiter, and having both methods available gives her flexibility with each garment. Peterson said that Green Earth cleans as well as perc, and preserves fabric because it is less aggressive, and as a result colors remain brighter.

And customers have noticed. "They walk up to me and thank me for it," said Peterson. "I have a large number of customers who never dry-cleaned before but now feel comfortable bringing in their clothes."

"People around here (Southwest) are very conscious about this," said Chang. "If they try it once, they know the difference."

Although the initial investment for the business is more than with the perc process (a Green Earth machine is $50,000, compared to $40,000 for a new perc machine), the costs are not passed onto customers because of the money saved in hazardous-disposal fees, she said.

The only drawback to the methods is time. Wet cleaning is a bit more labor intensive in terms of pressing, and Green Earth takes at least three hours to complete – both of which make it unlikely that "one-hour" dry-cleaning establishments will be changing over anytime soon.

But even though it might take more work, employees at Prestige and Colonial are delighted; eliminating perc has meant doing away with the unpleasant odor and accompanying headaches and dizziness.

"Personally, it’s so pleasant to use," said Peterson.

The clean road ahead

Chang plans to upgrade her shop’s exterior in the coming months, and Peterson is adding landscaping to the parking lot at the Linden Hills location.

He said Prestige also plans to buy another Green Earth machine soon to keep up with the increase in business.

"It works and it’s successful," he said. "We’ll never change."