Dry cleaning isn't really dry, it just cleans clothes with something that isn't water, which tends to shrink them.
And for decades, most dry cleaners have used a solvent called perchloroethylene, or perc. The EPA has classified perc, however, as a possible carcinogen and states have tightened regulations for its use, including California, which is phasing it out by 2020, Illinois and New Jersey. In Philadelphia, restrictions on perc were tightened in 2007 after city inspectors discovered low levels of perc vapor in a day care facility adjoining a dry cleaning plant.
While 80 percent of most dry cleaners still use perc, saying it's the most effective stain remover available, they're using it in far smaller amounts than in previous years -- from 1,200 to 1,500 gallons to about 140 gallons a year. Gone are the machines, which required employees to transfer solvent-soaked clothing from one machine to another. These days, clothes are soaked in solvent and dried in one machine, thus lessening exposure to the chemical. Also, the new machines recycle the solvent for repeated use.
Nonetheless, Peter Sinsheimer, executive director of UCLA's Sustainable Technology and Policy program, notes that perc is an air and water pollutant and that regulations now prohibit dry cleaners from leasing or building new plants near residential areas -- considered the best places to attract customers.
"Environmentally friendly" cleaners like GreenEarth, a solvent made from silicone, are preferable but not ideal, Mr. Sinsheimer says. Wet cleaning systems that use water and biodegradable alternatives in computer-controlled equipment "work really well, and dry cleaners are impressed when we show them how it's done," he added.
But change comes hard in the dry cleaning business, and owners complain that switching from solvents to water would be too expensive for most small businesses saddled with old equipment.
And while "green cleaning" may be the future of dry cleaning, it's still not clear how effective a marketing tool it is. A chain of Dry Cleaning Station stores touted its use of it when it opened franchises around Pittsburgh in 2007, and now all are closed.
John Hallak, an upscale dry cleaner in New York City, northern New Jersey and Las Vegas, eschews the "green" label -- those who do "are appealing to fear," he claims -- although he is licensed to use GreenEarth. He uses perc, too, believing it to be the most effective cleaner, and has high hopes for a SystemK4 solvent from Germany, which doesn't possess the flammability of other petrochemical solvents and cleans as well as perc.
"It's an effective cleaner, tremendous mileage, biodegradable. Although EPA will always find a way to regulate everything we use," Mr. Hallak grumped.