The ins and outs of dry cleaning are hardly a concern for most consumers. The mysterious process that takes a dirty piece of clothing and turns it into a clean, crisp garment is more often taken for granted than analyzed.
"What do I think of dry cleaning? Who does the best job," said Menachem Spira, dropping off shirts at Pride Cleaners in Los Angeles. "Who doesn't burn my shirts, who takes out the stains. That's what I think about dry cleaning."
But for dry cleaners, the issue of how clothes should be cleaned is at the heart of a debate prompted by increasing questions about perchloroethylene, or perc, the industry's most popular cleaning solvent.
The Environmental Protection Agency classifies perc, used by more than 90 percent of dry cleaners, as an air and water pollutant and suspected carcinogen. In December, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the air pollution control agency for the greater Los Angeles area, voted to end use of the chemical by 2020.
Many of the nation's 30,000 dry cleaners are hesitant to give up their old ways, unwilling to switch to more expensive, less toxic cleaning systems until forced to do so. Others are embracing the shift to greener technologies, recognizing that change is inevitable.
At Clean Show, the industry's national convention held recently in Las Vegas, exhibitors of new cleaning systems campaigned to get dry cleaning professionals to shift to more environmentally friendly technologies.
"Perc will be banned sooner or later," said Dee Patel, a dry cleaner from Orlando, Fla., who was shopping at Clean Show for a non-perc system.
John Hupp, president of Hangers America, a franchise dry cleaning company headquartered in Burnsville, Minn., that markets its liquid carbon dioxide system as a more environmentally friendly alternative to perc, said government regulation is forcing changes on the fabric care industry.
"What's more benign than the CO2 you exhale?" Hupp asked. "It's the bubbles in your drink."
Many in the industry say perc is not a hazard when used properly. The trade associations representing neighborhood dry cleaners and perc manufacturers are sponsoring their own research into perc's health and environmental risks, representatives said.
"If we felt the chances were more than likely that perc was a carcinogen, we'd be the first to say, hey, it's got to go," said William Fisher, CEO of the International Fabricare Institute headquartered in Silver Spring, Md.
Still, the institute has recommended its members switch to non-perc solvents and new non-perc-based equipment because of what it believes will be continued governmental attention on the chemical.
"Dry cleaners are aware, irrespective of the truth, that perc is going to be a media sensation," Fisher said.
The EPA has no immediate plans to ban perc in dry cleaning, said John Katz, pollution prevention coordinator at the EPA's Pacific Southwest division in San Francisco. For now, the EPA will continue to set regulations for perc's usage and remain "technology neutral" and not recommend dry cleaning systems and solvents to the industry, Katz said.
Dry cleaners face a confusing array of alternatives: hydrocarbon- and silicon-based solvents, wet cleaning, and liquid carbon dioxide. Although the South Coast AQMD has issued grants of up to $10,000 to help Southern California dry cleaners replace old equipment, many dry cleaners are hesitating, unsure which alternative to pursue.
"It's a confusing situation," said Tim Maxwell, president of GreenEarth Cleaning, a Kansas City, Mo.–based company that licenses a silicone-based dry cleaning process
Industry professionals say each method has its drawbacks. Wet cleaning tends to shrink garments and requires more stretching and pressing, and carbon dioxide systems are too expensive for most independent dry cleaners.
Many dry cleaners worry they will invest in one system, only to be told later that it is risky or unreliable. For example, the South Coast AQMD recently suspended grants for silicone-based dry cleaning materials pending more study.
Michael Gelpi, a San Rafael, Calif., dry cleaner who attended Clean Show, said he was waiting until "all these rocket scientists get their science together."
Others see in the confusion a chance to reinvent the industry.
"I thought, this could be the opportunity to do something positive and to be the first one in California doing it," said A. Gordon Shaw, who bought a Hangers America franchise in San Diego two years ago after 25 years of using perc.
Shaw said his switch allowed him to lease a prime location in a high-end shopping mall. Dry cleaners complain that landlords are not renewing their leases because of environmental concerns over the chemicals they use.
With the new technology, Shaw said his store was welcomed.
Written by: Alexandria Sage, Associated Press
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