BOSTON — CONSUMERS in search of more environmentally friendly lifestyles soon may be taking their clothes to the ``wet'' cleaners.
Last week, the United States Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics announced the results of a joint EPA and industry ``wet cleaning'' demonstration project.
The project compared the cost and performance of conventional dry cleaning with an alternative process called ``multiprocess wet cleaning.'' Wet cleaning involves steps such as gentle washing with water and natural soaps, spot cleaning, heat, steam, vacuuming, and more. Such processes are not new. But they are being considered as alternative cleaning methods to reduce the current use of solvents containing chlorine, increasingly considered an environmental hazard.
At the heart of the matter is something called perc. Perc - or perchloroethylene - is the chemical used by most dry cleaners to clean clothing. ``It's definitely a controversial issue. The question is, how toxic is it?'' asks Jodie Siegel, a member of the Technical Support Cluster at the Toxics Use Reduction Institute in Lowell, Mass. Siegel's group has been working with the Massachusetts dry-cleaning industry since November 1992, providing research, education, and training to help prevent pollution and the use of toxics.
Nationwide, there are more than 34,000 commercial dry cleaners, making them one of the largest groups of chemical users.
The EPA's Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics (OPPT) has been working with the dry-cleaning industry to reduce the use of perc. Concern over exposure and contamination of soil and groundwater has prodded regulatory action on local, state, and federal levels. Perc has been designated a hazardous air pollutant. On Sept. 15, the EPA set national emission standards for perc dry-cleaning facilities.
``Dry cleaners really see the handwriting on the wall,'' says Ohad Jehassi, an economist with the EPA's OPPT. ``Regulation is increasing on all levels.'' The wet-process study is part of a larger project - called the Cleaner Technologies Substitute Assessment - that the EPA is conducting to examine a range of alternatives. Parties ranging from Dow Chemical to Greenpeace have been involved. Collaboration supports a new voluntary and nonregulatory way the EPA is trying to ``do business,'' according to Mr. Jehassi.
Along with the Neighborhood Cleaners Association (NCA), the International Fabricare Institute, and Ecoclean International Inc., the OPPT conducted a test: Nearly 1,500 garments were collected from government employees and sent to the NCA's New York School of Dry Cleaning. Without considering fabric type, the clothes were treated with either ``wet'' or ``dry'' cleaning. All were pressed on the same equipment and returned to customers, who were not informed which process was used. ``We found that wet cleaning had no significant negative impact,'' Jehassi says. ``Over the short term it was like dry cleaning.''
The study found that wet cleaning requires less-expensive equipment, but total costs are similar because wet cleaning uses nearly three times as much skilled labor as dry cleaning. Several Ecoclean wet cleaners have already opened up in New York.
But some have doubts about wet cleaning. Peter Blake, of the Northeast Fabricare Association, is quick to point out that ``as an industry we're very interested in finding alternatives, but wet process is no replacement for perc.'' Some garments cannot be washed in water. And over a long period of time, spot cleaning may not render such clothes clean and serviceable enough for the customer, he argues.
Fabric is another issue. Labels on many clothes say ``Dry Clean Only.'' ``That's where the textile industry comes in - producing fibers that can handle water better,'' Siegel notes. EPA's Jehassi clarifies: ``We're not recommending that dry cleaners do this [wet cleaning].... This [study] shows there are options available.''