Making Dry Cleaning Safer

Photo: außerirdische sind gesund via Flickr Creative Commons

Perc, one of the main chemicals used in dry cleaning, is a serious health hazard to dry cleaners. We brought a safer, more environmentally friendly cleaning method to Chicago.

In 1993, Scott Bernstein was visited by a Greenpeace research director. Greenpeace had launched a program to reduce chlorine compounds with substitutes less damaging to the environment. One of the most difficult solvents to replace was the dry cleaning chemical perchloroethylene, or Perc. Not only was the fabrication of Perc highly polluting, but the USEPA had concluded that Perc was a likely carcinogen and thus a serious health hazard to dry cleaning workers.

In London, Greenpeace had discovered a man named Richard Simon, who was handing out flyers that claimed his company could clean fine clothing without using harsh chemicals. Mr. Simon’s family had left Germany in the 1930s and had set up a clothing care company in London, catering to families whose clothing had been cared for by personal valets for generations, but who now relied on outside cleaners. Unlike virtually every other cleaner in the UK, the company had not abandoned its historic skills or turned to chemicals such as Perc.

Greenpeace approached us as a respected research organization that could provide a credible assessment of Mr. Simon’s claim. CNT Senior Engineer, Bill Eyring, was given the assignment. After a week of fruitless literature and phone research, the decision was made to send Bill to London to learn all about this “wet cleaning” claim.

Bill went to London with several dozen samples of different “dry clean only” fabrics that had been stained with all sorts of products, including food and grease. During a four-day period, Bill watched as skilled workers successfully and efficiently removed all of the stains without chemicals and without shrinking the fabrics. They relied on hand work and washing machines, using cold water, hair-care soaps, and expert finishing.

Bill brought the samples back and wrote a report on the findings. Scott gave the report to the USEPA. Within a year, we had put together enough funding to begin investigating how wet cleaning could become an accepted alternative to dry cleaning in the United States. CNT decided that the best approach would be to create a successful wet cleaning business in Chicago.

Noam Frankel, a young entrepreneur who had recently sold his successful trucking company, was looking for a business opportunity that had environmental benefits. He was interested, but had had no dry cleaning interest or experience. So, he found the perfect manager, Ann Hargrove, who had sold her thriving dry cleaning business on the southeast side because she no longer wanted to work with Perc.

Noam and Ann were a dynamic team. The Greener Cleaner opened in 1995 and rapidly became a popular place to get high-quality cleaning, first in Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood, and then through a number of pick-up and delivery points in Chicago and suburbs.

Research at The Greener Cleaner was continuous during those years, including volunteer professional fabric experts visiting The Greener Cleaner frequently to inspect and measure customers’ clothing.

The impact of our work in wet cleaning is somewhat difficult to assess, but the National Cleaners Association estimates that there are now about 300 “wet-clean only” cleaners in the United States. The Association’s industry surveys also indicate that most dry cleaning shops now wet clean between 30- and 50-percent of their customers’ clothing. There is no question that the cleaning industry is safer to work in and more environmentally sustainable than it was 20 years ago.