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A Greener Kind of Cleaner

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Edward Sidi seems an unlikely exemplar of the environmental cutting edge.

The former life-insurance agent says he was just looking for a break from the sales grind when he opened a small business in Reseda last week.

But Sidi finds himself squarely in the midst of a green revolution in the dry-cleaning industry--a sleepy business long accustomed to using toxic chemicals.

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Sidi’s new shop is called Natural Cleaners and it’s one of just a handful in the country to embrace a new alternative to dry cleaning called “wet cleaning.”

Despite its humdrum name, environmentalists say wet cleaning has the potential to transform the dry-cleaning industry.

More important, it’s the first nontoxic process for cleaning fine clothes to be endorsed for possible wide-scale use by dry cleaners themselves, most of whom are not crusaders but small-business owners like Sidi with an eye to the bottom line.

“It’s the most promising alternative yet,” said Bill Fisher, head of the International Fabric Care Institute, the largest dry-cleaning trade group.

Dry cleaners say that in the future as much as 70% of all dry-cleaned clothes could be cleaned using the new method. Environmentalists say the portion could be much higher.

If wet cleaning takes off, it would be the biggest change in the dry-cleaning industry since the 1940s, when cleaners started dipping clothes in a chemical called perchloroethylene.

Today, perchloroethylene--dubbed “perc"--is a dry-cleaning standard.

The chemical is great at dissolving grease. And it isn’t explosive like previous dry-cleaning chemicals, so it could be introduced to small neighborhood shops, said Bill Seitz, executive director of the Neighborhood Cleaners Assn.-International.

Perc brought the dawn of street-corner dry cleaning and a spiffy new age of American dress. Thanks to this chemical, dry cleaning became available to the masses, and the industry grew steadily--especially in the ‘80s, when women flooded the work force and “hippies became yuppies,” Seitz said.

But as use of perc increased, the chemical displayed a distressing tendency to show up in water supplies and in potentially unhealthful concentrations in the air inside and around dry cleaners.

The unobtrusive little shops were suddenly making environmentalists’ “most wanted” lists.

Bitter battles ensued, with industry leaders often arguing that nothing could replace perc without dire consequences for the dry-cleaning industry.

But now, with the advent of wet cleaning, and the industry’s tentative backing of it, an uneasy truce has been struck, say advocates on both sides.

“We have to do this to survive,” said Ung Sin Na, owner of Artesia Cleaners in Hermosa Beach, and president of the Korean Dry Cleaning and Laundry Assn. of Los Angeles. “We have to look ahead.”

Wet cleaning relies on computer microprocessors, electronic sensors and an old-fashioned ingredient--water--to remove grime from clothes marked “dry clean only.”

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On its face, the technique seems deceptively simple. Water and biodegradable soaps and finishers are pushed gently through clothes. But high-tech machines control variables such as temperature and washing motion with microscopic precision. And as clothes are dried, the machine keeps tabs on humidity and adjusts the temperature accordingly.

Limited samples from a study of wet cleaning being conducted in Chicago show that about 93% of dry-clean-only clothes were wet cleaned successfully the first time around. Although rayon and knits have proved trickier, and the method is labor intensive, its cost appears comparable to that of dry cleaning, said Jo Patton, who is coordinating the study for the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago.

Dry-cleaning advocates caution that much more study is needed. Many remain skeptical that the method will prove useful for all fabrics. Wet cleaning is “more hype than reality,” said Seitz, of the Neighborhood Cleaners group.

But even Seitz agrees that wet cleaning will see greater use. Ultrasonic waves and liquid carbon dioxide are also being tested on clothes, but neither seems as practical as wet cleaning, added Richard Kinsman, economist for the Environmental Protection Agency.

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Results of other studies of wet cleaning are still pending. One such study has been undertaken by UCLA with funding from the EPA and the South Coast Air Quality Management District at a shop in Santa Monica called Cleaner By Nature.

One thing seems clear: Wet cleaning is passing the crucial test of economic viability.

Although there are probably fewer than two dozen shops devoted solely to wet cleaning in the country, importers of European-made wet-cleaning machines claim to have delivered nearly 100 to U.S. dry cleaners in recent months.

Smitty Fazio, of Fazio Cleaners in Brentwood, got one of the machines to broaden his business--not because he thinks perc is a serious environmental hazard. He has since wet-cleaned everything from wedding gowns to cashmere sweaters satisfactorily. “It’s here to stay,” he said.

Sidi, a transplant from Liverpool, England, has invested about $100,000 of his own money to start the Reseda shop. Playing the nature-loving theme to the hilt, he plans to cover the floor with artificial turf and greet customers in a bright tropical-print shirt.

Far from being a green warrior, though, Sidi is every inch the small-business man, and his enterprise less a crusade than a calculated financial gambit.

“I was looking for a job where I didn’t have to go out selling all the time and getting turned down,” said Sidi. “I decided this was the way to go.”

How customers will receive wet cleaning remains to be seen.

Although perc contamination is widespread--it is one of two chemicals largely responsible for tainting fresh drinking water in underground basins in the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys--public perception of the problems with dry cleaning remains murky.

“People want to know what goes on inside a dry cleaners about as much as they want to know what goes on inside a mortuary,” said Jack Weinberg, campaigner for Greenpeace, a strong promoter of wet cleaning.

Many customers have no idea how their clean plastic-wrapped garments got that way, added Deborah Davis, owner of Cleaner By Nature. “They think it’s fairy dust,” she said.

Most people, including those who wear dry-cleaned clothes, are exposed to perc at very low concentrations, about which little is known, according to the EPA.

But at very high concentrations, perc has been shown to cause cancer and kidney and liver damage in laboratory animals, the EPA said. Limited studies of workers in dry-cleaning shops have also shown increased risk for cancer.

Perc is considered worrisome enough that there are now regulations to protect workers in dry cleaners, as well as nearby residents.

Dry cleaners are no longer allowed to release it into the air, dump it, store it in leaky underground tanks and treat it as they once did, “as ordinary trash,” said Na, of Artesia Cleaners.

Still, some consumers would rather not take risks. Brentwood receptionist Michele Von Euer said, for her, wet cleaning is a release from years of guilt-ridden dry cleaning. She had some silk and rayon blouses wet cleaned recently at Cleaner By Nature.

“I saw this and I thought, oh my God, this can’t be true,” she said. “Someone’s finally doing something.”

Von Euer said she was pleased with the cleaning. And her conscience is at ease. “I believe I’m doing the right thing,” she said.


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