No percs for green dry cleaning

Dry cleaners look for greener alternatives to a toxic history

Mark Bonnenfant provides quality control at Peerless Cleaners, a perc-free dry cleaners in Reno. His family helped start the business in the 1940s.

Mark Bonnenfant provides quality control at Peerless Cleaners, a perc-free dry cleaners in Reno. His family helped start the business in the 1940s.

Photo By Kat Kerlin

The dry cleaning method of choice for 85 percent of U.S. dry cleaners is perchloroethylene. Well-known for its great cleaning capabilities, perc is also a toxic solvent, notorious for potential dangers to workers and neighbors near dry cleaners who breathe high concentrations of it, as well as to consumers who wear it in their clothes. The International Agency for Research in Cancer calls perc a “probable carcinogen.” It’s also been found seeping into the air, water and soil. One study showed it contaminated one in 10 wells in California.

The concern was such that California enacted legislation in January 2006 to phase out perc in dry cleaning by 2023. The sale of perc machines is banned there now. Massachusetts and New York are considering similar measures.

Energy efficient and free of volatile organic compounds (VOCs, greenhouse gas contributors), wet cleaning is the preferred method of environmental groups, including the Environmental Protection Agency. Liquid carbon dioxide is also considered a green method. It uses pressurized liquid instead of perc, and no new CO2 is pumped into the air through the process, so it doesn’t contribute to global warming. However, no one in Reno is known to use either of these methods.

Only eight of 30 Reno cleaners telephoned said they didn’t use perc. These included branches of Artist and Peerless Cleaners, as well as Bob’s Cleaners & Laundry, Cleaners at Old Town Mall, and Silverstate Cleaners. Instead, they use a hydrocarbon solvent, such as DF-2000. And while hydrocarbon is not considered “green” due to its release of VOCs and its petroleum-based solution, it’s less toxic than perc.

“We do about nine drums of solvent a year, putting about 1,400 pounds of VOCs into the air,” says Norm Davis, owner of Peerless Cleaners. “The average person puts 9.44 tons of VOC into the air. Really, we put less than the average car does in a year.”

Davis, a third-generation dry cleaner, looked into greener options, and while wet cleaning is supposed to be the greenest, he wasn’t convinced it was a quality method, having seen evidence of shrinkage, stretching and bleeding dyes on clothes. It also uses more water than hydrocarbon solvents do, though it uses less electricity. Residual perc—perc already in clothes from previous dry cleanings—has also been found escaping in large amounts down the drains of wet cleaning locations that hadn’t set up filtration systems.

As for liquid CO2, Davis was concerned that its use of 900 pounds of pressure to clean could be a safety issue. The machines are also expensive, with only a handful of qualified repairers in the country; if one breaks, he could be out of business for weeks. So, despite the environmental standpoint, he says, “I still have to have satisfied customers.” Hydrocarbon seemed a decent compromise.

As demand for eco-friendly dry cleaning options increase, technology, safety and price are expected to improve for those methods.