Turning a dry cleaning business green, not with envy

In a perfect world, all the dry cleaning establishments would be like Joy Pellegrini's.

When she heard through her state dry cleaners association that air quality standards governing emission levels of tetrachloroethylene, also known as perchloroethylene, or PERC, were going to be tightened, she took a hard look at her shop and at her finances. The dry cleaning equipment Ms. Pellegrini used was already one step up from the old kind, known in the business as a transfer machine -- as in, you transfer the wet clothes from the washer to the dryer, just as we do at home. The difference is, of course, that your clothes at home are wet with water. The clothes a dry cleaner transfers are wet with PERC, a solvent whose fumes can cause liver damage, depression of the central nervous system, lightheadedness, dizziness, nausea and maybe cancer. And did I mention they contribute to smog?


Ms. Pellegrini talked to her supplier, talked to her banker and talked to the dry cleaners association. And now she runs the most environmentally sound dry cleaning business in Seattle. Maybe in America.

Here's what Ms. Pellegrini got: a newfangled European dry-to-dry machine. The entire wash-spin-dry cycle takes place in one unit, so that far less solvent is exposed to the air. The machine uses one-third the PERC she needed for her old machine. It has a permanent, internal filtration system, so she's not sending dirty, PERC-soaked filters to the hazardous waste dump every week. And it has cut in half the amount of toxic sludge she generates.


She also got a gizmo that cools and recycles the water that cools the machine. It uses 75 percent less water than her old cool-one-load-then-down-the-drain cooling gizmo.

And did I mention that she asks ahead of time if you want plastic bags on your cleaned clothes? And that she takes the plastic back when you're done with it and piggybacks on a local retail chain's plastics recycling program? And -- are you ready? She really does take back metal coat hangers.

Now I know my colleagues in the green-writing business have been telling us to give hangers back to dry cleaners for years. But have you ever tried to do so? Dry cleaners cannot realistically reuse them. Ms. Pellegrini takes them back, though. She reuses what she can and recycles the rest through a scrap dealer.

And did I mention that she is looking into reusable cloth bags she's heard about? The idea is, you bring the soiled clothes to her in the bag, she gives them back to you, clean, in the same bag.

Sadly, not all of us live within walking distance of Joy Pellegrini's Stadium Cleaners. So how do we identify the green dry cleaner in our neighborhood? They may not go to the lengths Ms. Pellegrini does, but because the new equipment is efficient and saves money in the long run, you can be sure that smart dry cleaners are making the switch.

A starting point: Your cleaner should be within walking distance of home or work, or on a regular driving route. Because of pollution from your car, driving out of your way to a green cleaner doesn't make sense.

If you have a convenient dry cleaner you like, you could try engaging him or her in a chat about his or her dry cleaning equipment. This may or may not yield any useful information. Deborah Rechnitz, of the Washington State Dry Cleaners Association, offers these simple tips:

* Look for a plaque, certificate or decal showing that the establishment is a member of the state or national dry cleaners association. Membership means they are getting the technical and regulatory information they need to run a sound shop.


* Use your nose. Does the shop smell of dry cleaning fluid? It is always possible that the odor you detect came from a recent spot cleaning. But if the shop habitually smells, take your clothes elsewhere. PERC is smell-able at 50 parts per million (ppm). This is unacceptably high by modern standards.

* Can you smell your clothes after they have been dry-cleaned? If so, they aren't being processed properly. Dry cleaners have the capability of pulling almost all the PERC back out of a garment. If your clothes stink of PERC, keep looking.

One last thing: Recent Environmental Protection Agency studies found that PERC outgassing from cleaned clothes contributes to poor indoor air quality. Should you hang your dry cleaning in a ventilated place, such as a porch, for one or more days? Environmental experts recommend it. Dry cleaning experts say it's unnecessary. You'll have to suit yourself.

(Feeling environmentally incorrect? Write a letter to Ms. Household Environmentalist -- on recycled paper, of course, using soy-based ink -- and send it to P.O. Box 121, 1463 E. Republican St., Seattle, Wash. 98112.)