CHICAGO — In February, after 14 years of study, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) named perchloroethylene a “likely” human carcinogen in its Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) database. And after more than two decades of increasingly stringent regulation on the industry’s solvent of choice, the announcement seemed like the final nail in perc’s coffin.
Ironically, the decision actually protects perc’s position in dry cleaning, at least for the time being. “Everyone has the misconception that the category perc is in has changed,” says Faye Graul, executive director of the Halogenated Solvents Industry Association (HSIA). “It has not changed at all. The report says perc is safe for use in dry cleaning.”
EPA expressed no concerns about consumers wearing clothing cleaned in perc, and the IRIS report could ease the drinking-water standard required for environmental cleanups. And with a recent, recessionary lull in regulatory activity, only co-located facilities and plants in California and a few other areas see the possibility of a full phaseout ahead.
About 70% of U.S. operators continue to use perc, HSIA estimates. Closed-loop machinery has slashed perc use and exposures to the point at which even EPA can’t complain. What’s more, perc’s performance continues to be used as the yardstick when alternative solvents appear on the marketplace. “If you talk to dry cleaners, they say they’re not going to move to anything else unless forced to,” Graul says. “It cleans the best.”
Not many operators will argue that point—perc has been the solvent to beat since its ascendance in the 1940s. Offering powerful cleaning action on dry- and wet-side stains, nothing produces clean clothing faster or more easily. The nonflammable solvent made the plant-on-premises possible, making dry cleaning the entrepreneurial industry it is today.
But perc’s viability in dry cleaning faces a rocky road ahead. The reporting requirements already in place are a burden, the fees associated with perc use and disposal keep mounting, and the solvent itself isn’t getting any cheaper. And poor publicity surrounding retroactive liability has given consumers the idea that dry cleaning is a dirty business, making a “green” message important to marketing.
“The EPA’s decision doesn’t do a whole lot,” says Jon Meijer, vice president of membership for the Drycleaning & Laundry Institute (DLI) in Laurel, Md. “It may even improve the situation. Perc has essentially been treated as a likely carcinogen for years. It probably will not be a regulatory issue that changes the minds of dry cleaners. There’s consumer pressure, advertising pressure and the price of perc.”
DLI’s official position since 2007 has been that operators considering the purchase of a new machine should investigate an alternative solvent. “We won’t tell dry cleaners to stop using perc today,” Meijer says, “but when you need to replace your equipment, consider the alternatives. We would be remiss if we said to buy new perc machines.”
One of the earliest alternatives on the market, Rynex, recently resurfaced as a product of Albany, Ga.-based Equinox Chemicals. The latest iteration of the glycol ether solvent addresses earlier versions’ shortcomings, such as poor water separation and lingering odors. “We looked at Rynex and realized that there was a lot we could bring to the table in manufacturing,” says Yalda Harris, executive vice president of Equinox. “We spent the first year and a half perfecting the chemistry. It had a black eye in the industry, and we had to address that.”
Now, Rynex 3 is the “best of the best,” she says. It has a KB value (KBV) of approximately 75, and cleans “better than any other alternative.” Harris says not to take her word for it, though: “Look at the amount of time and testing that has been put into it,” she says. “Do your homework, and make sure you have all of the technical data. If you don’t like it, we’ll take it out—no questions asked.”
Also banking on glycol ether’s strength is a hybrid product, GenX, which is available as a drop-in solvent and as a concentrate operators can add to hydrocarbons to boost cleaning power. GenX solvent offers a KB value “in the 70s,” according to marketer Caled Industries, and delivers excellent results on oil- and water-based stains while still being gentle enough to handle delicate garments.
“GenX offers dry cleaners cleaning power that rivals perc while eliminating regulatory headaches and offering a great consumer image,” says Jack Belluscio, president of Wayne, N.J.-based Caled, which purchased the product line from Organic Systems early this year. “GenX offers dry cleaners who want to go ‘green’ a way to do it without increasing costs or sacrificing cleaning quality.”
For operators who enjoy perc’s power but are unwilling or unable to purchase a new Class III machine, two n-Propyl Bromide (nPB) solvents—Fabrisolv and DrySolv—offer the option of a machine conversion. nPB can become corrosive rapidly, however, so conversions must be done professionally; a dedicated machine will soon be available from Ashbrook USA. “You have the flexibility to convert, and buy a dedicated machine later if you want to,” says Scott Mondi, sales and marketing manager for Bayonne, N.J.-based Poly Systems USA, marketers of Fabrisolv. “It gives dry cleaners a year or two to comply.”
With a KBV of 125, Fabrisolv packs the biggest punch on the market—making it great for tough stains, but even less forgiving than perc on items such as plastic beads and painted items. “The clothes come out as close to perc as you can get,” Mondi says. “You can get a load through in 30 minutes. With Fabrisolv, you can make money and stay compliant.”
Finally, while a handful of liquid-CO2 users continue to operate without a machinery manufacturer of record, Naperville, Ill.-based Solvair Systems LLC has helped its ecofriendly system expand to more than 50 locations since its introduction in 2007. Using a proprietary detergent blend in the cleaning cycle and pressurized liquid CO2 to rinse and dry clothing, the system offers gentle cleaning without the shrinkage that hot dry cycles often produce.
Even though machinery manufacturers make every attempt to make switching to an alternative seamless, there will be a learning curve with any new solvent; each has unique properties that operators will have to observe and accommodate in order to deliver properly cleaned clothes. “Look at each of the alternatives independently and look at your business model,” DLI’s Meijer says. “Decide what works best for you.”
Look at the track record and availability of the alternatives when considering a switch, and how steep a learning curve you and your employees can handle in day-to-day operations. “With several solvents available, a business owner should consider reliability, performance, availability and ease of use in addition to cost,” Beard says. “While it is natural to be enticed by ‘new,’ a more important deciding factor should be ‘proven.’”
Also remember that a solvent system is more than what’s inside the base tanks. “Look at the entire process, including the soaps and the additives you need to use with it,” Meijer says. “The quality of the cleaning has more to do whether or not you are running your equipment correctly. It’s like when you change the oil in your car—it will run a lot longer and better.”
Also, operators should learn from perc’s example and realize that there’s no guarantee that every alternative will remain unregulated, no matter how “green” its credentials may look today. “The EPA does not regulate chemicals that are not in use,” Meijer says. “If there’s an issue once something catches on, they look at it. We recommend that even if a solvent is not regulated as a hazardous waste, you should treat it like one. We don’t know what’s going to happen in 20 years.”