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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Dry Cleaning

Air Date: Week of

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TOOMEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Diane Toomey. Most dry cleaning is actually a wet process where clothes soak in chemical solvents rather than water. More than 90 percent of the 34,000 dry cleaning shops in the U.S. use the toxic solvent, perchloroethylene, commonly known as perc, to clean clothes. During the past decade, perc has been heavily regulated by the government. But some groups feel that's not enough. Now there's legislation in Congress that would give a tax credit to cleaners who voluntarily switch to safer solvents. Gary Johnson reports from Chicago on an industry of mostly family-owned businesses that's facing some big decisions.

JOHNSON: Perchloroethylene, or "perc," is a chlorinated solvent primarily used in this country to make refrigerants, degrease metals, and dry clean clothes. Studies show perc is a known animal carcinogen, and a probably human carcinogen. A National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Study, released in February, concluded that dry cleaning workers exposed to perc suffer excess cancer deaths. In the early 1990s, the Environmental Protection Agency set up strict regulations for dry cleaners for the use and disposal of perc. Rick Hind is the legislative director of the Greenpeace Toxic Campaign. He believes the regulations are inadequate, and that a phase-out of perc is overdue.

HIND: Maybe a hundred million pounds of perc a year are allowed to be released into the environment, and an equal number of people are exposed to that perc throughout the United States. So, it represents a serious health problem, but the good news is there's safe materials, safe processes available.

JOHNSON: A new bill now before Congress would give a 20 to 40 percent tax credit to cleaners who switch over to non-hazardous solvents. Representative Donald Manzullo is cosponsor of the Small Business Pollution Prevention and Opportunity Act of 2001. The legislation has bipartisan support in Congress, and the endorsement of twenty environmental groups. Offering a tax credit, says the Illinois Republican is a way to create a market for safe solvents.

MANZULLO: Unless something is done, perc may be outlawed, who knows, five, ten years from now, and there may be no alternative technology. Then we'll have to use disposable clothing, and then that will fill up the landfill. The best way to replace the old technology would be with something that's environmentally friendly, and to do that through a very generous tax credit.

JOHNSON: While some dry cleaners are taking a wait-and-see approach to the new alternative solvents, others are voluntarily embracing change.

(dry-cleaning noises)

USTANEK: Your clothes are ready.

JOHNSON: It's the end of a wash cycle at Tom Ustanek's Lansing Cleaners, just outside Chicago. The siren signals that his machine has just depressurized. Seven hundred pounds per square inch of pressure is used to keep the liquid carbon dioxide, or CO2 cleaning solvent, at approximately 55(, which is optimum for textile cleaning. Ustanek reaches for the handle of the heavy door on his 10 foot tall, 10 ton washer.

USTANEK: And yes, it does look like we're -- we're getting ready to launch a missile or something out of this thing. (laughter) Uh, but actually it's -- just going to take out your clothes.


USTANEK: Cold, cool, crisp, and ready to press.

JOHNSON: Ustanek is the second commercial liquid CO2 machine manufactured 2 years ago by U.S.-based Micell Technologies. He uses it to clean fire-damaged garments for insurance companies, which makes up a quarter of his business. He says the process is environmentally friendly; most of the CO2 used for cleaning is recycled. Less that 3% is vented into the air. But the machine's price tag of $175,000 is two and a half times that of new perc equipment, which means its cost and size are beyond what most cleaner dry cleaners could handle.

(different dry-cleaning noises)

CHUNG: It's a very big day, yeah?


JOHNSON: Across town, there's a noticeable absence of chemical cells among the familiar carrouseling garment bags and noisy pressing machine of Byeong Chung's Bright Cleaners.

CHUNG: My customers very happy. They like to me, my store, they like to, actually.

JOHNSON: Chung's suburban Oak Park shop is the first in Illinois to switch to the new GreenEarth Cleaning System, which uses a liquid silicone solvent. Her new machine cost over $15,000 more than a new perc machine, but she said she wanted to stop exposing her customers, her workers, and the environment to perc.

CHUNG: It's a big problem now, anyway. Every day you've got the environment problem, ground cleaning, it's too much money.

JOHNSON: Chung and Ustanek are two dry cleaner pioneers who have invested in perc-alternative processes identified by the tax credit legislation, which also includes a sophisticated soap and water process called wet cleaning. Anthony Star of Chicago's Center for Neighborhood Technology helped spearhead the Alternative Clothes Cleaning Demonstration Project. The program, which was partially funded by the EPA, researched the viability of wet cleaning. Star says wet cleaning is less expensive than some of the other alternatives, and is gentler on garments, workers' health, and the environment.

STAR: The future of the cleaning industry is likely to be cleaners who use wet cleaning plus one or more of the other new alternative solvents that are being commercialized. What I think we're likely to see is that perc will never be banned, but as the new technologies come along, perc will gradually grow to be obsolete.

(dry cleaning noises)

JOHNSON: But not everyone in the dry-cleaning business believes there's a need for alternatives. George Vaselakos has owned and operated Poly Cleaners in Oak Park for over 30 years. He's president of the Illinois State Fabricare Association, and owner of the latest generation of perc machines. Vaselakos insists the industry has handled perc very responsibly since the government imposed tighter regulations.

VASELAKOS: Well, I don't think that there's enough economic reason for me to go to these alternative solvents, and I don't think that they've been proven.

JOHNSON: Vaselakos says the new, efficient perc machines use 73% less perc than 10 years ago, and he'd like to see the tax credit bill amended to include advanced perc equipment. Perc manufacturer Dow Chemical would also like Congress to amend the legislation to include perc. A recent letter obtained by Living On Earth, and sent by Dow to dry cleaning businesses, states that the current bill will "actually disadvantage the vast majority of dry cleaners seeking to become more environmentally friendly." Representatives from Dow declined to go on tape, but Janet Hickman, Dow Industry development manager, one of two authors of the letter, did offer some comments. She says the company is not lobbying Congress, but Dow feels the responsibility to educate dry cleaners about the bill, so that they may inform members of Congress about newer perc technologies. Greenpeace's Rick Hind says Dow doesn't want cheaper alternatives to perc to succeed. The company has fought perc regulations in the past, he says, and including perc would undermine the very purpose of the bill. In fact, Hind has concerns about the inclusion of liquid silicone in the bill, because chlorines are used in the manufacturing process.

HIND: Greenpeace's position is clear that the alternatives to perc are not more toxic or untested solvents. The alternatives are materials or processes that have been proven safe. And those, so far, to us, uh, include wet cleaning and the liquid CO2. If you don't have toxic chemicals going in to the process or disposal, you won't have them coming out.

(dry cleaning noises)

JOHNSON: Meanwhile, Tom Ustanek believes his family's gamble on a first-generation liquid CO2 machine has paid off, but he believes other mom and pop operators are feeling trapped between the old and new ways of doing things. They need a break from the federal government, he says, to invest in new technologies. That way the corner dry cleaners will no longer be looked upon as a major polluter of the environment.

USTANEK: We are all neighborhood operations. The tax credit would be very good because it would just help any of these technologies advance and take over and replace, at a much faster rate than could be possible in our industry otherwise.

JOHNSON: Legislative action on the Small Business Pollution Prevention Act could come as early as this summer. For Living On Earth, I'm Gary Johnson in Chicago.

(drawn out hissing noises)



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