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Coming clean on cleaning

 

Dry cleaners are under pressure to use safer products in their operation

 
 
 
Michael Kutchuk watches a machine called a pant topper, a machine that shapes the pants, do its work at Nettoyeur Ecologique Royal. He uses steam and a minimal amount of water to wash everything, from bridal gowns to wool suits to beaded blouses.
 

Michael Kutchuk watches a machine called a pant topper, a machine that shapes the pants, do its work at Nettoyeur Ecologique Royal. He uses steam and a minimal amount of water to wash everything, from bridal gowns to wool suits to beaded blouses.

Photograph by: John Kenney, The Gazette

Jerry Seinfeld had it right. There really is no such thing as "dry" cleaning. Seinfeld had this great routine where he wondered how dry cleaners clean clothes without liquid. We all know that is not possible, he ranted, unless you're talking about scratching the shmutz off with a fingernail.

Of course, "dry" cleaning has always used fluids, just not water. What most dry cleaners have been using to clean clothes since the 1930s is a clear fluid called perchloroethylene, a chlorinated hydrocarbon that quickly caught on with the industry because it is a nonflammable solvent that was fairly kind to fabrics. Today, an estimated 85 per cent of dry cleaning facilities wash clothes in perc, as it is commonly called.

But since perc has been linked to cancer and is an environmental hazard, the dry cleaning industry is under pressure to move to alternatives. Some are trying oil-based solvents, silicone-based solvents, carbon dioxide, and even good old-fashioned H20. Water is by far the greenest of these options, and with the right equipment and skill, water can be used to safely and effectively clean "dry-clean only" clothes.

Many jurisdictions in Europe, the United States and Canada already have passed legislation or are studying ways to phase out the use of perc by the dry cleaning industry.

California prohibits the installation of new perc machines, and plans to eliminate perc use by all dry cleaning facilities by 2023. New York State requires dry cleaners using perc to install vapour barriers around their equipment if they are located in mixed-use (residential/commercial) buildings.

Toronto's Medical Officer of Health produced a report in 2007 that recommended the federal government phase out the use of perc at all dry cleaning facilities.

When Michael Kutchuk, owner of Nettoyeur Écologique Royal, bought his business in N.D.G. five years ago, he saw the green writing on the wall.

The business needed new equipment, and Kutchuk decided it did not make any business or ethical sense to buy a new perc washer. "The life of a machine is 20 years and it takes six years to finance, so what happens if in 10 years I can't use it any more?"

Plus, Kutchuk was concerned about the health impacts of perc. His wife had spent a few months in the dry cleaning business and told him of the skin irritation she suffered unless she wore gloves to handle the clothing.

Kutchuk did some research and ended up investing in a "wet cleaning" system. Wet cleaning uses steam, and minimal amounts of water to get clothes clean.

Kutchuk explained that the key to professional wet cleaning is the sensitivity of the equipment. The temperatures and speeds of rotation must be carefully controlled to avoid shrinking and damage. His washing machine and dryer look like a regular industrial machines, but both offer precise control of temperatures and rotation speed, which are set according to the fabric and type of garment. In fact, there are specific settings for bridal gowns, outer wear, duvets, table cloths, silks ties, etc. - even stuffed animals.

The system includes three other adjustable units; a pant topper, a finishing board and a multi-form unit (a kind of adjustable mannequin). These units use pressure, steam and air to blow, suck and press the clothes into shape after they are cleaned. Some garments, like wool sweaters and suits, do not go into the dryer. Instead they are hung to dry and then finished on the multi-form unit and pant-topper while still damp.

The process requires skilled workers and more time and labour than perc systems, so the price is slightly higher. But Kutchuk says his customers are very pleased with the results. The wet cleaning process does not dull the colours or leave a kind of sheen on the clothes, as the chemical cleaning process does. And there is no chemical smell, he notes.

Nettoyeur Renew Système in Outremont has also stopped using perc. Owner James Bitzilos offers customers the choice of clothes cleaned with an oil-based solvent (DF-2000, made by Exxon-Mobil) or his own version of professional wet cleaning.

Bitzilos acknowledges the oil-based solvent method is not perfectly green (just greener than the perc method). It emits volatile organic compounds and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies it as a possible neurotoxin and skin and eye irritant for workers. So, for customers looking for a truly green service, he offers a system that uses very cold water and a cool dryer. The system can clean most, but not all types of clothing and fabrics.

While Kutchuk and Bitzilos might seem like risk takers to their peers, it seems obvious the industry will follow them as more jurisdictions phase out perc systems. And consumers can drive the change by demanding greener "dry" cleaning methods.

Nettoyeur Écologique Royal, which offers only the environment friendly wet cleaning, is at 5866 Sherbrooke St. W. with a second location at 5956 Monkland Ave.

Nettoyeur Renew Système, which offers oil-based cleaning as well as a more ecological wet cleaning, is at 251 Bernard St. W., and picks up clothing at four other locations; Nettoyeur Hum at 125 Mont Royal E., Buanderie Duluth at 106 Duluth St. E., Nettoyeur Usis at 6026 Darlington Ave. and Buanderie du Parc at 3486 Park Ave.

Clarification: In my last column on wood burning appliances, I said natural gas, propane and wood pellet stoves and fireplaces require electricity to start. In fact, some models of gas and propane units come with battery-operated remote starters, and some wood pellet stove models have battery back-up systems for when the power goes out. By the way, that column generated a heated debate on our website. Check it out: blogs.montrealgazette.com/category/life/green-life/.

mlalonde@thegazette.canwest.com

 
 
Michael Kutchuk watches a machine called a pant topper, a machine that shapes the pants, do its work at Nettoyeur Ecologique Royal. He uses steam and a minimal amount of water to wash everything, from bridal gowns to wool suits to beaded blouses.
 

Michael Kutchuk watches a machine called a pant topper, a machine that shapes the pants, do its work at Nettoyeur Ecologique Royal. He uses steam and a minimal amount of water to wash everything, from bridal gowns to wool suits to beaded blouses.

Photograph by: John Kenney, The Gazette