- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 20, 2003

For the past 1 years, Kevin Clinton, 28, has dropped off suits for dry cleaning at Lustre Cleaners near his Capitol Hill home without thinking much about what happens to put new life into his garments.

“I kind of wondered sometimes because I know it doesn’t involve getting it wet,” he commented one morning recently while handing over a 2-year-old, single-breasted, charcoal-gray, pinstriped suit that he asked to have ready by 6:30 that evening. He also left 10 shirts to be washed and ironed.

He said he never has detected an annoying chemical odor when he picks up the freshly bagged suit and never has questioned the environmental hazards, if any, that might result from the solvents employed in the process.

Like many people, Mr. Clinton appreciates the efficiency of the operation and doesn’t question how it works. “It’s one thing I take for granted,” he said.

The term “dry clean” means no water is used in the process. Instead, the garment is soaked in a solvent that dissolves dirt and grease and is subjected to a special commercial detergent for cleaning, as well. The garment is dry when it is put into the machine and dry when it is removed. The traditional solvent involved is called perc (short for perchloroethylene) that, along with the detergent, is removed after each cycle by heat. Perc is vaporized and caught in a condenser that returns it to liquid form for use in another cycle. Thirty gallons of liquid are used for every 60-pound load of clothes.

At Lustre, the first step in the cleaning process is to log a customer’s garment into the computer by number for identification and recall later. The pockets are searched to be sure no credit cards, cellular phones or other valuable items have been left behind. Then it is tagged with a staple and put into a nylon bag for delivery to the computerized cleaning machine. Light- and dark-colored garments are cleaned in separate loads.

The employee in charge of the machine checks each garment for stains or obvious marks that need special attention — dabbing the stain with the appropriate chemical — before the entire garment is cleaned.

Fifty minutes later, the garment is removed from the machine and given to a presser, who will iron the suit back into shape. The last step is giving the suit a second check before bagging it in plastic.

The necessity of using so much hand labor, as well as the investment in some costly equipment — Lustre’s new cleaning machine cost $65,000, says co-owner Steve Grozbean — helps explain the prices charged customers. Mr. Clinton paid $7.95 plus tax for the suit cleaning. The total bill for cleaning one suit and 10 shirts came to $25.74. Mr. Grozbean, who runs the business with his brother Brian, knows their operation may be more expensive than others in the neighborhood, but he says they feel they make it up in offering Sunday hours and in doing minor repairs such as replacing missing buttons for free.

Shirts are laundered in large washing machines in the basement before being brought upstairs for finishing. The Grozbeans say they lose money by charging the same price for a woman’s shirt as for a man’s. A woman’s shirt has to be pressed by hand because the pressing units the Grozbeans use are shaped for clothes worn by the average-size male. Three different — and expensive — machines are needed to properly dry and press a shirt after it has been laundered: one for the body, another for sleeves and a third for the collar and cuffs.

“A lot of companies are vying to come up with new methods for dry cleaning,” says Jay Calleja, vice president for communications at the International Fabricare Institute in Silver Spring. “[Currently] a solvent typically can take out oil-based stains but does not do a good job taking out water-based stains — the kind that can come from food — which is where the detergent comes in. Without a good detergent, dry-cleaning personnel have to do a great deal of extra work.”

Probably 80 percent of dry cleaners use perc, Mr. Calleja says. Several alternative solvents — so-called nonperc methods — are available, but there is dispute over the comparative benefits of each. One method uses carbon dioxide in liquid form, another uses a silicone-based solvent patented under the name GreenEarth Cleaning. A third method, called professional wet cleaning, uses water with a specially formulated detergent and special drying and pressing equipment.

Perchloroethylene is a regulated toxic substance that has been called a probable carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency. When not controlled, it can contaminate groundwater. Pressure on the dry-cleaning industry has forced regulations to lessen chances that any of perc’s fumes will escape into the surrounding air or that its residue will trickle into the groundwater.

“Perc falls into the same low classification as many everyday compounds, including household ammonia or bleach, gasoline, antifreeze, nail-polish remover and other widely used products,” the organization states in educational materials prepared for its members.

The International Fabricare Institute says perc usage in terms of gallons has been reduced by 80 percent in the past 15 years. The colorless, nonflammable, synthetic liquid long has been considered ideal by dry cleaners because it does not harm fabric fibers. The most advanced machines are closed systems that require less of the chemical and do not permit perc to enter the environment, therefore eliminating the need for anyone to have direct contact with the solvent.

Instead, the perc, along with other residue left over from the cleaning process, is deposited and automatically sealed into 15-gallon airtight containers on-site. It then is picked up by companies licensed for that purpose and sent to an environmentally safe disposal address. Lustre contracts with a company called Safety Clean that periodically takes the leftover perc waste to a site in West Virginia.

“If we use 10 gallons of perc a month, it’s a lot,” says Steve Grozbean. “We used to use up to 60 and 70 gallons a month.”

A February article in Consumer Reports on dry-cleaning alternatives found the carbon dioxide method to be the most effective — better even than conventional dry cleaning with perc. Difficult textiles such as lambs’ wool, silk and rayon were used in the magazine’s tests. So-called wet cleaning was said to be good only for items that normally could be washed by hand.

Three years ago, Buddy Gritz, owner of Presto Valet at 1623 Quaker Lane in Alexandria, switched to the GreenEarth method because, he says, he wanted to be 100 percent environmentally friendly. The carbon dioxide method, he found, involves machines that must operate with more than 500 pounds of pressure per square inch, and he didn’t want to risk having the machine spring a leak. He says he has needed just 200 gallons of silicone for cleaning since June 2001 and that his customers report no difference in the treatment of their clothing.

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