Dry Cleaners Call Switch to Non-Toxic Wet Cleaning A Good Business Decision, Occidental Report Finds
Dry cleaners in Los Angeles and Orange counties who switched from chemical solvents to professional wet cleaning uniformly regard it a good business decision and would recommend it to others, according to a new Occidental College study.
Each of the five owner-operated cleaners in the study – the first to assess the viability of the switch to wet cleaning by multiple cleaners – reported that they were able process the full range of garments they had previously dry cleaned, maintain comparable levels of customer satisfaction, and cut operating costs.
The study by Occidental’s Pollution Prevention Education and Research Center (PPERC) comes on the eve of a Nov. 1 vote by the board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District on whether to become the country’s first air quality agency to require dry cleaners to phase out the use of perchloroethylene (or “perc”). A chemical cleaning solvent used by 85 percent of all dry cleaners, perc is classified as a toxic air contaminant and a major groundwater pollutant in Southern California.
“Through these five case studies, we have learned about the keys to making a quick, smooth, and successful transition to professional wet cleaning,” said Peter Sinsheimer, PPERC director and senior author of the report.
Professional wet cleaning is one of several alternatives to the use of perc. Introduced to the United States from Germany in 1991, it is a non-toxic, water-based system that uses computer-controlled washing and drying machines, biodegradable detergents, and specialized finishing equipment to clean wool, silk, rayon and other delicate fibers often labeled “dry clean only.”
The five cleaners who participated in the study have anywhere from two to 27 years previous experience as conventional dry cleaners, and all initially had serious reservations about making the switch to wet cleaning – concerns that it might increase shrinkage, be more time-consuming, or less effective.
Yet after making the switch during the past 15 months, each of the five “considered switching a good business decision, a fact that reflects their confidence in the quality of wet cleaning and their confidence in the system’s financial viability,” the report says. Among the benefits of switching to wet cleaning reported by the cleaners were improved health (no headaches or dizziness) and reduced operating costs (due in part to the elimination of federal and state regulatory fees and costs of disposing of perc waste.)
Each of the cleaners reported being able to successfully wet clean more than 96 percent of all garments brought in by customers, a success rate comparable to that achieved when the cleaners were using conventional dry cleaning equipment. (The five cleaners wet clean from 774 to 2,193 garments per month.) None reported any negative customer response as a result of the switch to wet cleaning, and all were successful in retaining their customer base during and after the switch.
Cleaners reported operating costs were reduced from $3.59 to $17.49 per 100 garments, due to lower equipment, maintenance, and utility costs, and the elimination of hazardous waste and regulatory fees. None of the cleaners reported an increase in the number of hours worked by employees.
Proper training and installation of wet cleaning equipment, as well as the ability to observe the claming process first-hand at a demonstration facility, are important factors in a successful transition from dry to wet cleaning, the cleaners reported.
As part of PPERC’s Professional Wet Cleaning Commercialization Project, each of the five cleaners received an equipment grant of $12,500, assistance in selecting and installing professional wet cleaning equipment, and training in the operation of the equipment. Funding for the project was provided by the AQMD, The California Wellness Foundation, The Gas Company, and Southern California Edison.
Participating in the study were San Clemente Dry Cleaning Center in San Clemente; Anawood Cleaners in Anaheim; One Day Cleaners in Mission Viejo; Del Mar Cleaners in Venice; and Eli’s Airport Cleaners in Van Nuys.
The title of the PPERC report is “Commercialization of Professional Wet Cleaning: An Evaluation of the Opportunities and Factors Involved in Switching to a Pollution Prevention Technology in the Garment Care Industry.” It was written by Sinsheimer; Robert Gottlieb, Henry R. Luce Professor of Urban Environmental Studies; and Cyrus Grout and Angela Namkoong, PPERC senior research associates. A full copy of the report can be found online at: