Written by Amy Coombs
Good Times, Wednesday, 09 April 2008
Santa Cruz-based dry cleaners struggle to define what makes the industry green
Phasing out the toxins means less dry, more clean. At the Santa Cruz-based Vapors Cleaners dry cleaning is getting a wet, green new name.
“I sent this through the wet cleaners to put it through the test,” says the storeowner Chris Peoples as he pulls a black leather jacket out of the office coat closet.
“It used to have lime and concrete on it from a construction site I was working on,” he says, “then I wore it fishing.” The jacket shows no such signs of abuse now, and despite its journey through a wet cleaning system, the leather is in pristine shape.
In January 2007, the California Environmental Protection Agency approved the phase-out of traditional dry cleaning machines, leading many to adopt wet cleaning and other environmental methods. December 31 was the last day that traditional cleaners could be legally installed, and 2023 is the last year they can be used. At this point cleaners will have to go green or go out of business.
The decision has so far motivated 80 California dry cleaners to adopt eco-friendly wet cleaning methods. Another 150 are running mixed shops that offer wet cleaning alongside other more contested “green” methods.
Peoples took over Vapor Cleaners in July, and has spent the last nine months installing wet cleaners and energy-efficient boilers. In a few weeks, solar panels will line the rooftop of the historic 1946 building—it was one of a small handful of dry cleaners that opened along the coast, introducing the new industry to Northern California. The business operated as a laundry and steam cleaning service when it opened in 1912, and was formerly located in the small building next door.
“The employees breathe much better since the changes were made,” says Ephren Sixtos, who has been with the company for more than 20 years, and currently manages the business with his wife Maria. Utilities and water use have also gone down, and business has remained consistent without having to change prices.
It might sound counterintuitive to use water to clean fragile dry-clean-only items, but several high-end cleaners have adopted wet cleaning as their sole method. “We are seeing cleaners in Malibu and La Jolla running Armani suits through wet machines every day,” says Peter Sinsheimer, Director of the Pollution Prevention Center at Occidental College in Los Angeles. “You don’t need anything else besides wet cleaning.”
Wet cleaning is energy efficient and nontoxic, and can be customized to meet the needs of hypoallergenic customers. Machines use very small amounts of water and a computer programmed detergent injection system, which allows cleaners to modify the acidity of each wash. Machines spin very slowly, and reverse direction as sensors detect moisture in the fabric. This balances the distribution of water in the garment, protecting fragile fabrics. Peoples says he also uses a biodegradable detergent.
In contrast, most traditional cleaners use Perchloroethylene (PERC)—a volatile organic chemical identified as a “probable human carcinogen” by California’s Proposition 65. It’s one of 189 chemicals designated as hazardous by the Clean Air Act, and has earned half of all superfund priority sites their designations.
Seventy-five percent of the dry cleaners that use PERC are officially considered to be contaminated, says Steve Goins, an environmental program manager at the State Coalition for the Remediation of Dry Cleaners. The coalition consists of 13 states with dedicated programs for contaminated dry cleaner sites. “Usually sites don’t try to clean up until they are going out of business, or plan to switch ownership,” says Goin. While PERC is tightly regulated, enforcement audits conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency have found that most cleaners are not in compliance with regulatory policies.
Along with wet cleaning, hydrocarbon-based methods are a top second choice for cleaners trying to go green. This approach simply replaces PERC with a volatile petroleum-based solution. Clothes are otherwise run through a standard dry cleaning process.
If you take your clothes to Vapor Cleaners, you can choose between hydrocarbon cleaning and wet cleaning. Another Santa Cruz-based company, Almar Dry Cleaners, uses hydrocarbon cleaning as its sole method. “We phased out PERC last year and bought a new machine,” says Haejun Lee, the store’s owner, “It’s much better for us now.”
Yet Sinsheimer says hydrocarbon methods are not as green as wet cleaning methods. The problem is hydrocarbon products release greenhouse gasses and are an energy drain. “Petroleum doesn’t volatilize as quickly as PERC,” says Sinsheimer, “so the cycles are longer and more energy intensive.”
Other companies use a silicone-based product made by the Kansas City-based company Green Earth, although recent research findings indicate the active ingredients in the dry cleaning solution might contribute to cancer as a tumor promoter.
In February, the California Air Resources Board decided not to include Green Earth as an approved environmental technology, excluding it from the list of dry cleaning methods that the state will sponsor. In 2003 a state fund was established that set aside fees from traditional machine sales to help dry cleaners buy environmental technologies. Green Earth methods are not eligible for assistance.
Yet despite the controversy, Green Earth has a loyal following, including at least one dry cleaner in Santa Cruz. Cleaner by Nature, a Santa Monica-based laundry service, continues to use the Green Earth Product. “It keeps the whites very bright, and gets the clothes cleaner,” says a company spokesperson.
Frank D’eufemia of Van Tassel Green Earth Dry Cleaning—a New York-based cleaners—says he still believes Green Earth is better than hydrocarbon methods. “Hydrocarbon is oil—if it gets into the ground water, it contaminates [the water supply],” he says.
This is why Sinsheimer argues the best option is wet cleaning. “Most cleaners that use Green Earth and hydrocarbon methods believe they are doing the right thing,” says Sinsheimer. “But we don’t know if these methods are really that much better than PERC.” If a cleaner offers two green methods, he recommends going with the wet cleaning option.
Another green option is carbon dioxide (CO2) cleaning. Despite its name, no greenhouse gasses are released, and it is considered entirely nontoxic. CO2 cleaning uses recycled waste carbon dioxide made by chemical manufacturing industries. Even though it uses a compressor, it requires no drying stage and is overall more energy efficient than typical dry cleaning.
Saving green by going green
“Green cleaning makes the most sense from a financial perspective,” says Sinsheimer. Last year he published a study in the Journal of the Air and Waste Management Association; the findings indicated that wet cleaners save money on utilities, regulatory fees and equipment maintenance.
He and his team followed eight dry cleaners as they switched to wet cleaning, and followed up for two years to monitor profits, expenses and customer complaints. Overall equipment purchases were equivalent to traditional dry cleaning machines, and employees were able to clean more clothes in the same time period after they switched to wet methods.
“Folks always worry that wet cleaning will shrink clothes, but this isn’t the case,” adds Peoples. Either PERC or wet cleaning can damage clothes when used improperly.
Using green methods may also help cleaners avoid lawsuits and expensive clean-up costs, he says. It can take as much as $3 million to clean up a dry cleaning site after 10 years of PERC use, and the individual cleaners must bear this cost.
Suppliers of PERC are also beginning to lose out. After well water was found to be contaminated by dry cleaners in Modesto, the city filed and recently won a groundbreaking suit against PERC manufacturers and distributors.
Concerns over toxic contamination motivated the original owners of Vapor Cleaners to pass the family business on to Peoples. An environmental engineer by training, he cleans up contaminated sites for a living.
“Many dry cleaners are locally owned and operated, and if you build a sustainable business you will have decades of customer loyalty,” says Peoples. The building is as much a historical landmark as a dry cleaner—when Peoples first cleaned out the attic he found old baseball uniforms and vintage military patches that were donated to the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. Some of Vapor’s employees have been with the business for more than 40 years.
“It would be a shame to lose the business to toxic clean-up costs,” says Peoples. “Most dry cleaners don’t make enough to fix this level of a problem.”
The company may even invest in a biodiesel delivery van. A Santa Cruz property owner recently found an early twentieth century Vapor delivery van complete with the original logo sitting in one of their lots. “We are looking into putting a biodiesel engine in the van, and using it for deliveries,” says Peoples, “but for now it will just sit in the parking lot to showcase our history.”