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Eco-Friendly ‘Wet Cleaning’ Getting the Wash Test in Los Angeles

October 18, 1996

SANTA MONICA, Calif. (AP) _ Step inside the Cleaner by Nature shop on Wilshire Boulevard, past the window display of antique washboards, dried flowers and green plants to racks of clean clothes on hangers.

Then sniff.

That’s potpourri you smell in the air, not perchloroethylene, the cleaning fluid used by more than 80 percent of U.S. dry cleaners and the trademark odor that hits you as soon as you walk through their doors.

Cleaner by Nature owner Deborah Davis has traded the heavily regulated chlorine solvent _ a suspected cancer-causing chemical _ for a high-tech variation on good old soap-and-water.

She runs one of about 10 ``wet cleaners″ that have sprung up around the country, targeting the emerging market of ecologically friendly products and services.

These cleaners rely on a computer-controlled washing machine that uses plain water, biodegradable soap, fabric conditioners and finishing to gently wash the dirt out of the unthinkably immersible: wool suits, silk wedding dresses, camel hair coats. A computerized dryer stops before clothes get to be bone dry.

``In the past, cleaners took water out of the equation and substituted a solvent. Now we have the capability to control other factors so we can put water back into the equation,″ said Davis, a newcomer to the $5.1 billion cleaning business who turned her environmental interests into enterprise.

``Water is really the best cleaning solvent of all.″

For their part, many of the nation’s 34,000 dry cleaners see wet cleaning as a potential adjunct _ not a replacement _ for what they do.

``If water were the solution to the problems of textiles, there would never have been a dry cleaning industry to begin with,″ said William Seitz, the no-nonsense executive director of the 4,000-member, New York-based Neighborhood Cleaners Association-International.

After experimenting with wet cleaning, he cautions against pushing it as an all-purpose replacement for chemical methods, especially when improved equipment is making perc use more efficient and less polluting.

``There is nothing at the moment that does as good a job as perc does. Unless and until something comes along that’s better, the industry is going to use it,″ he said.

But perc does have problems associated with it, prompting a concerted search for alternatives to the chemical classified as a hazardous air pollutant under the Clean Air Act.

Perc can produce headaches and dizziness, irritate the eyes, skin and respiratory tract and cause liver and kidney damage. It can spread into soil and groundwater from leaks, spills and sewer disposal, which prompted strict federal and state regulations.

``We are concerned about its toxic effect as a potential carcinogen,″ said Ranji George, program supervisor in the technology advancement office of the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

At the University of California, Los Angeles, Pollution Prevention Education and Research Center, researchers are trying to evaluate what’s ahead in cleaning.

Since Feb. 1, and continuing until Jan. 31, 1997, UCLA is monitoring Davis’ shop and her cleaning plant seven miles away. A final report is due next spring.

``We’re looking at the performance, the environmental impacts of wet cleaning versus dry cleaning and we’re looking at the financial viability of wet cleaning based on a year’s worth of operating costs,″ said Jessica Goodheart, manager of the UCLA Wet Cleaning Demonstration Project.

An important consideration is customer satisfaction, including the percentage of garments sent back for additional cleaning or pressing.

Among the shop’s satisfied customers is Elyse Gunter, an attorney at 20th Century Fox who dry cleans most of her wardrobe.

``There should be more places like this. I just got tired of getting my clothes back smelling like used chemicals,″ said Gunter, who complained only that a T-shirt with some Spandex ``came back a little stretched-out.″

UCLA received $75,000 from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, $50,000 from the South Coast Air Quality Management District and $35,000 from the California Air Resources Board.

EPA provided $300,000 for a similar study of The Greener Cleaner on Chicago’s north side. Results compiled by the non-profit Center for Neighborhood Technology indicate as much as 80 percent of dry clean-only garments can be successfully wet cleaned, said Jo Patton, manager of the center’s Alternative Garment Cleaning Research Project.

``We think a lot of cleaners could do it and do it economically,″ she said.

Among wet-cleaning successes is Casey’s Cleaners in Parma, Ohio, which quietly switched to water-based cleaning more than a year ago.

``My customers haven’t even noticed the difference,″ said Diane Casey, who competes with seven cleaners in a five-mile radius. ``Nobody has any idea that we’re using water.″

Economically speaking, wet cleaning systems cost about $30,000, compared with up to $50,000 for a perc machine.

Cleaner by Nature uses a Belgian-made washer and American-made dryer distributed by Aquatex of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

The Greener Cleaner uses Swedish-made equipment distributed by Aqua Clean of Inwood, N.Y., which has sold 150 machines that mostly can be found in shops with perc machines as well. It has sold more than 1,000 overseas, sales manager Kevin Daly says.

Daly notes that solvents, while great degreasers, are not as efficient as water in removing perspiration smells and food stains and getting whites truly white.

However, wet-cleaned fabrics require additional pressing and blocking. And cleaners need to look out for tricky fabrics and finishes that may behave unpredictably when wet.

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