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ALTERNATIVES TO DRY CLEANING

Regulations dry cleaners face are becoming more restrictive and costly. Potential liabilities mount. At the same time, public concern about health and environmental damage from hazardous dry cleaning chemicals grows. As a result, new clothes cleaning technologies are entering the marketplace. There is now little doubt that the main chemical used by dry cleaning shops, perchloroethylene usually called perc, will soon enter the history books as a thing of the past. The most promising new alternative cleaning solution is water.

Water is an age-old cleaner, of course. The twist is that with recently developed technology, cleaners can now economically use water to clean garments that once were dry cleaned. Research has created a new generation of soaps and finishing agents. There are also new computerized washing machines with controlled agitation, and high-tech dryers that can precisely measure and control humidity levels to prevent shrinkage. With this equipment, many cleaners around the country have begun wet cleaning a much larger percentage of clothing. Some have introduced wet cleaning on a trial basis or started it as a supplement to perc dry cleaning. Others use wet cleaning as a total alternative to dry cleaning.

Greenpeace wishes to facilitate this change. Our goal is a rapid phase-out of perc production and perc use. But we want this to happen in a way that allows small dry cleaners to survive the transition and to prosper. Water machines cost less than perc machines and require no hazardous waste removal. The price of cleaning, however, tends to remain about the same, because there may be higher labor costs at the finishing (pressing and ironing) end. However, the clothes come out softer and smell nicer. More importantly, wet cleaning eliminates a source of injury to human health and the environment. Customers who seek out and use professional wet cleaning services can help transform professional clothes cleaning from a dirty, polluting industry to one that is clean, green, and sustainable.

This alternative to perc comes at a good time. Most of the 200 million pounds of perc used annually by 35,000 cleaners across the U.S. and Canada eventually enters the air and can contaminate the workplace and nearby apartments. Some perc stays in the cleaned clothing and can (in lesser amounts) contaminate consumers' homes. Significant amounts of perc have entered ground water aquifers, creating major Superfund liabilities. In California, 10 percent of drinking water wells are contaminated with perc.

Perc waste that does not directly escape to the environment is sent to hazardous waste incinerators and cement kilns where perc combustion generates dioxins and other ultra-toxic pollutants. Perc use injures the environment and can also harm the health of dry cleaning workers, neighbors, and customers.

Perc exposure has been linked to a variety of human health problems. Perc is known to attack the central nervous system and can lead to headaches, nausea, dizziness and memory problems. Perc has been associated with numerous reproductive problems, including fertility problems in men and menstrual disorders in women. Among female dry cleaning workers, studies have shown a risk of miscarriage that is three to four times above normal. Perc is also known to contaminate mother's milk.

Growing evidence indicates perc causes cancer in humans. The prestigious International Agency for Research in Cancer (IARC) classifies perc as a "probable human carcinogen" and other regulatory bodies are following suit. Perc is already known to cause cancer in animals. Several studies have indicated that perc exposure in humans increases the risk of esophagus, lung, kidney and liver cancers. Water contaminated with perc has also been significantly linked to leukemia and cancers of the pancreas, bladder and cervix.

Many dry cleaning industry representatives dispute the concerns about perc that have been raised by Greenpeace and by others who advocate on behalf of public health and the environment. The industry contends there is little, if any, health risk associated with the proper use of perc. Still, most industry leaders acknowledge that health and environmental concerns, together with other liabilities associated with perc, are rapidly moving their industry towards change.

Dry cleaning is professional fabric care in which clothes are washed in a toxic chemical.

Wet cleaning is professional fabric care using waterand special non-toxic soaps.

Home laundryalso uses water, but can shrink or damage many garments, especially tailored wools, silks and rayons. This mainly occurs because of improperly controlled temperature, excess agitation, and inappropriate detergents.

Wet cleaning can be successful for virtually all garments that are dry cleanable. Professionals know the appropriate way to clean the garment and also know how to finish the garment in ways that maintain proper shape and good-looking appearance. Professional wet cleaning also can provide a more finished look to some garments considered home washable.

The best way is to locate a professional wet cleaning shop that uses only water-based methods to clean clothing. Wet cleaning establishments are located throughout the U.S. and Canada.

There are other shops that offer both wet cleaning and dry cleaning services. These shops need to know that the public will support their move away from perc and towards wet cleaning.

Any cleaner who wet cleans less than 75-80 percent of garments received should not be considered a wet cleaner, but rather a dry cleaner offering wet cleaning services. These shops still deserve your business as well as encouragement to clean more garments with water.

Supplemental training, if it is not available from the machine manufacturer, is available from trade associations or from organizations like the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) in Chicago.

Nearly all garments labeled "Dry Clean Only" can be satisfactorily wet cleaned. This includes most leather and suede garments, as well as most tailored woolens, silks and rayons. The "Dry Clean Only" label, however, does create a problem for the cleaner. In some cases, a liability may arise from cleaning a garment in a manner different from that stipulated on the care label. This can discourage some cleaners from expanding their wet cleaning services.

For that reason, proponents of professional wet cleaning are working with the garment industry and the Federal Trade Commission in an effort to improve textiles, tailoring, and care labeling policy in order to help move away from the use of toxic chemicals and towards safer alternative practices.

Written by: Greenpeace USA


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