Calif. Dry Cleaners Go Green A new California phases out a toxic chemical commonly used at dry cleaning facilities. But how do you convince small business owners to switch to a more environmental alternative?
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Calif. Dry Cleaners Go Green

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Calif. Dry Cleaners Go Green

Calif. Dry Cleaners Go Green

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This is Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand,


I'm Alex Chadwick. You take your expensive clothes to the dry cleaner to protect items that might not survive a regular washing machine. Well, in California - and where California goes other states often follow - traditional dry cleaning is not going to be possible any more. Instead, dry cleaners may do what you do already with your other clothes, wash them in water and soap. Amy Standen reports.

(Soundbite of door chime and people talking)

AMY STANDEN: It's a Sunday afternoon at Nature's Best Cleaners in Sunnyvale. The shop is closed, but people are turning up from as far away as Sacramento. They're dry cleaners, here on what's probably their one day off of the week, to learn about the latest in professional cleaning technology.

Mr. PETER SINSHEIMER (Director, Pollution Prevention Center for the Urban, Director, Environmental Policy Institute, Occidental College): Thank you all for coming, on Super Bowl Sunday...

STANDEN: That's Peter Sinsheimer. He's leading the workshop today.

Mr. SINSHEIMER: So this will have to be the Super Bowl of wet cleaning today.

STANDEN: Sinsheimer is not a dry cleaner, he's a scientist at Occidental College in Los Angeles. But, like everyone else in the room, his clothes are immaculate. Sinsheimer is trying to convince dry cleaners up and down the state to trade in their old machines for a new greener technology called "wet cleaning." So far, it's a tough sell. Of the 5,000 or so cleaners in California, about 100 made the switch.

Mr. SINSHEIMER: This is really for you to see this, to ask questions, as many as you can think of, and see the process first hand.

STANDEN: Since the 1930s, most dry cleaners have relied on a chemical called perchloroethylene, or perc, to remove stains. Hence, as Jesus Evaldivia(ph), who works at a cleaner in Redwood City, it works great.

Mr. JESUS EVALDIVIA (Dry Cleaner, California): It takes the grease really well. I mean, everything comes out really clean. They say it's bad for the environment, so we have to move on. That's the only thing.

STANDEN: But, in lab studies with animals, perc has been linked to liver cancer and, at higher doses, it can harm the central nervous system. Melanie Marty, with the California EPA, says even casual dry cleaning customers have reason for caution.

Dr. MELANIE MARTY (California EPA): When you go and pick up that bag and bring it home, you still have perchloroethylene off gassing or coming off your clothes. So the concern is, well, we really don't want something in widespread use that's been shown to be a carcinogen.

STANDEN: So California will phase out perc entirely by 2023, which leaves cleaners with a handful of options. Some are switching to machines that use a petroleum based chemical, but those create smog and may also be banned. Another option is recycled carbon dioxide, which is virtually pollution free, but costs three times as much as a perc machine. The most affordable, environmentally benign option seems to be wet cleaning. The kind of machine that the dry cleaners are crowded around today.

Unidentified Man #1: What kind of maintenance does the washing machine need? Is there any filters to clean...

Mr. SINSHEIMER: No, no...

STANDEN: Wet cleaning machines look a lot like regular washing machines, but with a few key differences. One, they use a tiny amount of water and so put very little stress on clothes. Two, they have elaborate computers that can be programmed for different kinds of fabric. And then, there's the cost. A wet cleaning system costs about $40,000, roughly the same price as a perc machine.

Unidentified Man #2: And they're not going to shrink, right?


Unidentified Man #3: How good is it at removing grease stains?

STANDEN: But a lot of dry cleaners are wary of the change. For them, reputation is everything. A single ruined suit can knock a cleaner out of business. And these aren't chain stores with big corporate budgets. Across the country, many dry cleaning shops are owned by first generation immigrants, drawn to a line of work where you don't have to speak a lot of English. Take, for example, Lawrence Lim, who immigrated from Korea 22 years ago. Lim heads the Korean-American Dry Cleaners Association. He says, it's unfair that small businesses like his should have to be the pioneers of a new technology.

Mr. LAWRENCE LIM (Head, Korean-American Dry Cleaners Association): Customer expect you to do the dry cleaning. That means we have to do dry cleaning. We are the cleaners. We have to follow the manufacturers' instructions. We don't have a choice.

STANDEN: That's why Peter Sinsheimer is also lobbying clothing manufacturers to put tags that say "professional dry or wet cleaning" on their products. He hopes that way, customers will know what to expect. For NPR, I'm Amy Standen in San Francisco.

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