California recently became the first state in the country to phase out a toxic chemical used in dry cleaning called perchloroethylene, or perc. The timing is such that cleaners will be able to wait until their current machines need to replaced (the normal lifespan of a perc machine is about 15 years) but it still leaves a lot of questions about what technology comes next – and how environmentally friendly it is.
Working on this story, one thing that became clear to me is how critical this decision is to dry cleaners. It’s not like trying to green-ify Walmart: The vast majority of California’s dry cleaners are family-owned businesses. Working in a dry cleaning shop requires a limited range of conversation, which has made dry cleaning an attractive option for recent immigrants. These are not big businesses with matching profit margins, they’re mom and pop shops whose survival depends on reputation. A ruined wedding dress could practically knock a small dry cleaning shop out of business.
This Google map features dedicated wet cleaners in the Bay Area (meaning that’s the only technology they use). So far about 100 cleaners have switched to what seems to be the most affordable, environmentally-friendly technology, wet cleaning. That number is growing all the time, partly as a result of workshops being held around the state by a scientist from Occidental College named Peter Sinsheimer who’s on a mission to steer cleaners toward wet cleaning. This story begins at one of those workshops, held at Nature’s Best (formerly “Delight”) Cleaners in Sunnyvale. You can see photos from that event – and learn more perc and wet cleaning machines.
Oh and about this map: If it’s been a while since this story aired on 2/29/08, you should check out Occidental’s regularly-updated list of wet cleaners, searchable by zip code.
You may listen to “The Toxic Business of Dry Cleaning” Radio report online, as well as find additional links and resources.
Amy Standen is a Reporter for QUEST and Radio News at KQED-FM.