By MIREYA NAVARRO
Published: January 11, 2009
Dumping a pile of jackets, pants and shirts on the counter of a West Village dry cleaner, Wayne Kasserman had a pungent problem: A skunk had sprayed outside a Los Angeles guest house where he was staying, and the stink had penetrated the closets and his clothes.
However strong the smell, though, he wanted the antidote to be gentle on the planet. Mr. Kasserman, 32, an actor and producer who lives in New York, chose Green Apple Cleaners, which advertises “nontoxic” methods that it says will not leave harmful residues in garments or the environment.
He had no shortage of businesses to choose from. In New York and around the country, dry-cleaning stores have increasingly sprouted signs reading “organic” or “green,” as environmentally conscious consumers look for alternatives to traditional dry cleaning and its use of the solvent perchloroethylene. Prolonged contact with that solvent, known as PCE or perc, has been linked in some studies to cancer and neurological troubles like vision problems, and its use is strictly regulated.
But marketing claims for the alternatives are not regulated at all. So customers like Mr. Wasserman, who said he was not sure just what methods Green Apple used, are left to hope for the best. And sometimes the cleaning methods advertised as environmentally sound are anything but.
Government and environmental watchdogs say many cleaners are turning to methods that are only slightly less toxic than perc. The National Cleaners Association, a trade group, says some businesses are using the term “organic” in a blatantly misleading way — not in the sense of a chemical-free peach, but in the chemistry-class sense of containing carbon, the element found in all organic compounds, including perc.
Under that standard, noted Alan Spielvogel, technical director of the cleaners’ association, “I could clean garments with nuclear waste and I could call myself organic.”
Although there are government standards for organic food and energy-saving appliances, there is no such certification of what makes a dry cleaner green. But environmental experts say technology is readily available to replace toxic chemicals in dry cleaning. And while about 85 percent of the nation’s estimated 36,000 dry-cleaning shops still use perc as their primary solvent, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, many cleaners have started to embrace the new methods.
The environmentally preferable choice for dry cleaning, experts say, involves little more than water. In a process known as wet cleaning, garments are washed with water and biodegradable detergents in computerized machines that carefully control variables like agitation. Most stains are water soluble, and most items labeled “dry clean only” can be professionally wet cleaned without shrinkage or damage, studies have found.
Cleaners who use wet cleaning say it does a better job of removing some stains than traditional dry cleaning — which, despite its name, is actually a wet method that immerses clothes in a liquid solvent.
The quality of wet cleaning “is comparable, and it should not cost any more,” said Peter Sinsheimer, director of the Pollution Prevention Center at Occidental College in Los Angeles, a leading source of research on issues related to garment care.
But wet cleaning has been a tough sell among cleaners because it requires training on new equipment and because of the potential liability cleaners face for defying the “dry clean only” label. Mr. Spielvogel said wet cleaning also has limitations; while it is fine for cottons and fabrics worn in warm climates, he said, it can damage heavy wools or structured clothes like suit jackets.
Still, many dry cleaners have added wet cleaning as an option, said Christopher White, the technical director of America’s Best Cleaners, a trade association with its own quality certification program. Among its 26 affiliate cleaners, he said, some already use wet cleaning for half to 70 percent of all garments.
Another green option for cleaners, experts say, replaces a solvent like perc with liquid carbon dioxide (CO2). But the method is rarely used because the equipment is too costly — up to $150,000 per machine — for the typical mom-and-pop dry cleaner.
Most cleaners weaning themselves off perc have switched instead to a hydrocarbon solvent that acts in a way similar to perc. But Judith S. Schreiber, the chief scientist for the Environmental Protection Bureau of the New York State attorney general’s office, said the solvent, which is petroleum-based, was “a cleaned-up version of gasoline” and only slightly less toxic than perc.
Many cleaners juggle multiple methods. At Meurice Garment Care, a cleaner with four locations in New York City and on Long Island, garments are cleaned with perc, hydrocarbon solvents or water, depending on the fabric and stain. Wayne Edelman, the company’s president, said wet cleaning had replaced perc as his business’s most used method.
Most customers, he added, do not care what method is used as long as their clothes come back clean and undamaged. “We have customers who are inquisitive and want to know, but most don’t,” Mr. Edelman said.
But many of those who are starting to care have yet to catch up with all the changes and marketing claims.
At a Chelsea outlet of Green Apple Cleaners, Richard Goldberg, a 45-year-old media consultant, said he was attracted to the store because “I don’t like the chemicals and toxins that people use to clean clothes on me.” Yet he was surprised to learn about wet cleaning, one of the methods Green Apple uses. “I have a cashmere sweater here,” he said, pointing to the pieces he had just picked up. “They couldn’t replace it. If they said, ‘Do you want to wet clean it?’ I’d say no.” Cashmere, in fact, can be safely wet cleaned, according to dry cleaners that use the method.
Green Apple also advertises CO2 dry cleaning on its Web site and in store brochures. But the business actually uses another method, known as the Solvair cleaning system, for most of its CO2 cleaning. As in CO2 dry cleaning, this method uses carbon dioxide to rinse and dry. But to clean, it uses a solvent, propylene glycol ether, rather than liquid carbon dioxide.
The National Cleaners Association and garment care experts like Mr. Sinsheimer said that the environmental impact of the solvent had not been studied, and that its use made Solvair something other than CO2 dry cleaning. “It’s very misleading,” Mr. Sinsheimer said.
David Kistner, chief executive of Green Apple, said he added the Solvair system in 2008 as his business grew. He said that it was a better cleaner than CO2 for most garments and that he used CO2 only for cleaning “more delicate” items, like a vintage gown.
But Mr. Kistner, who has built his four New York City stores and a thriving pickup business at apartment buildings on claims of environmental safety, acknowledged that he should be clearer about Solvair. Although he has explained the method in his company’s news releases, he said he was revising the Web site and brochures to give customers more information on the process.
“We’re not trying to hide anything,” he said.
What Mr. Sinsheimer calls “an alphabet soup of solvents” is emerging as dry cleaners and manufacturers of their equipment look for alternatives to perc, whose days may be numbered. The Environmental Protection Agency has ordered that perc be phased out in dry cleaners operating in residential buildings by 2020. By 2023, California plans to ban its use in all dry cleaning stores.
Environmental officials in some states are promoting wet cleaning and CO2 dry cleaning by financing training and demonstration projects. This month, the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute, a state-financed program at the Rochester Institute of Technology, plans to start a training program and demonstration sites in New York, Buffalo and Rochester. Mr. Sinsheimer said his center was helping to develop similar programs in New Jersey and Massachusetts.
In the meantime, Mr. Spielvogel of the National Cleaners Association said customers who cared about environmental practices should look beyond particular methods and question the cleaners: Do they dispose of hazardous waste safely? Do they recycle hangers? Do they use biodegradable plastic and packaging, or fuel-efficient vehicles?
He said his group would develop a “green cleaner” rating system this year to help consumers find the right cleaner, with ratings of up to five leaves posted on its Web site. Federal and state environmental officials advise customers to question cleaners about the solvents they use for both dry and spot cleaning, and to consider specifically asking for wet cleaning. Any newly dry-cleaned clothes that smell of chemicals, they say, should be returned or taken to another store for recleaning.
An even better alternative, some officials say, is to avoid buying clothes marked “dry clean only.”
Mr. Kasserman, the man with the skunk problem, said he usually did his own laundry. But given the seriousness of the smell, he trusted the job to Green Apple and hoped it would be done “in an environmentally responsible way.”
Mr. Kistner, the Green Apple chief executive, checked and found that Mr. Kasserman’s clothes were all done “in straight CO2,” except for a jacket that was wet cleaned.
Mr. Kasserman, after picking up his clothes, reported in an e-mail message: “They came out great! A fantastic fresh smell, no skunk at all.”