The Real Story on Organic Dry-Cleaning

dry cleanerIn everything from fruit to furniture, consumers have a choice between conventional or organic goods. And increasingly, the option is available in dry cleaning, an industry known for its use of hazardous chemicals, namely the volatile solvent perchloroethylene, known as perc.

The definition of “organic” is somewhat unclear when it comes to dry cleaning. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) certifies agricultural businesses as organic based on a list of requirements. Dry cleaning is not FDA-regulated, and in the world of chemistry, “organic” means anything with carbon in its molecular makeup. This definition includes all petroleum-based products — even perc.

The United States Department of Labor has deemed perc, which has been used for dry cleaning since the 1940s, to be health-hazardous; it has also created regulations that govern its use. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has studied perc’s cancer-causing effect on rodents, and controls perc usage through a variety of measures, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

So what are the alternatives to perc? This is where the word “organic” comes into play. “The term is generally just applied to processes that don’t use perc,” the marketing director of GreenEarth Cleaning in Missouri, Stacy Sopcich, said. “Organic” can refer to at least three processes: the patented GreenEarth Cleaning, CO2 cleaning, and hydrocarbon cleaning, each of which has its pros and cons.

GreenEarth Cleaning is a process that involves a nontoxic, chemically inert, silicone-based chemical solvent. When disposed of, its ingredients decompose within days into silica, water, and trace amounts of carbon dioxide. All studies, including independent evaluations, have deemed it harmless to handlers and the environment.

Hydrocarbon is the oldest and cheapest alternative to perc. It uses a volatile, carbon-based compound, similar to perc in chemical composition. Largely manufactured by ExxonMobil, the solvent is less hazardous to workers and the environment than perc, but can also result in a strange odor on clothing. “A lot of people don’t like how it can leave a smell,” the owner of Casa Organic Dry Cleaners in New York, Ruben Sadykov, said. “But it depends on what needs to be cleaned. Sometimes it works best.”

CO2 cleaning is the newest and priciest technology. It involves using special equipment to convert carbon dioxide from gas to liquid, which is then used to clean the clothes. After that, the carbon dioxide is converted back into gas and released. It is viewed as environmentally friendly and, in addition to the process of wet cleaning, the best for keeping fabric chemical-free.

“You know what they use to put bubbles in soda? That’s the same stuff we use to clean the clothes,” Mr. Sadykov, who made the switch from perc-based cleaning to organic about four years ago, said. “It works really well.”

According to Mr. Sadykov, only about 15% of all dry cleaners in New York City currently offer organic dry cleaning.

Mr. Sadykov said that he went “green” to give his business an edge. “Most customers come here because they’re concerned for their health,” Mr. Sadykov said. “They don’t want those chemicals next to their skin.”

Mr. Sadykov said that he investigated all the different alternatives available when he made the switch, conducting trial runs with each method before making the decision to go with a combination of three perc alternatives: CO2 cleaning, hydrocarbon, and wet cleaning.

Wet cleaning involves using water at meticulously regulated temperatures so that dye will not run and material will not be damaged. As long as nontoxic soaps and detergents are used (or no soaps or detergents are used at all), this process is good for the environment, employees, and the fabric. Mr. Sadykov uses wet cleaning with 80% to 85% of clothing.

Mr. Sadykov chose not to use the GreenEarth Cleaning solvent because he didn’t feel the results were commensurate with the expense. “The other methods worked better,” he said.

But Ms. Sopcich, of GreenEarth, says there is a financial barrier to using CO2 cleaning, too: Many businesses can’t afford the costs of purchasing and maintaining equipment. “Most mom-and-pop businesses just can’t do it,” she said.

Most organic dry cleaners have to charge between 20% and 30% more than regular dry cleaners to cover the costs of more expensive technology and labor, Mr. Sadykov explained. “For CO2 cleaning, it was more than $150,000 just for the machine,” he said.

According to the EPA, the cost of standard machines ranges from $35,000 to $52,000.

Most dry cleaners converting to the technologies follow a model similar to Mr. Sadykov’s: They offer drop-offs and pickups around New York City, and clean the clothes at a facility outside of Manhattan where rent is cheaper; Mr. Sadykov does all his cleaning in Long Island City. Green Apple Cleaners, which has three Manhattan locations, affords CO2 technology by using a similar business strategy. Co-founder David Kistner opened the cleaners in 2002 when he became concerned about the health hazards that dry cleaning chemicals posed for his pregnant wife.

Small businesses that do all their cleaning on-site often cannot afford to invest in new technology.

Environmentally friendly business strategies not only make businesses eye-catching, but also have benefits across the board, Mr. Sadykov said.

“Sustainability is good for business costs, as well as for the environment,” he explained. “I tell people to bring back their garment bags, and I reuse them. I don’t want to waste anything,” Mr. Sadykov said.

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