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.”
CLASS III WARFARE
Most of the industry has come around on this point. Manufacturers say that almost all new machines sold in the U.S. are now Class III or “multisolvent” machines, which can run any of the ever-expanding variety of lighter-than-water alternatives: high-flashpoint hydrocarbons, GreenEarth’s silicone-based solvent, glycol ethers such as Rynex and GenX, and Kreussler’s acetal solvent, SolvonK4.
However, the shift to new technologies has been slowed by economic realities. “U.S. Department of Commerce statistics state that dry cleaning machine imports and sales are approximately half of what they were pre-2008,” says L. Ross Beard, CEO of Naperville, Ill.-based Solvair LLC and R.R. Street. “With declining cleaning volumes at the plant level, business owners are struggling to maintain positive working capital, let alone accumulate excess cash that can be used for new equipment purchases.”
“The change would come quicker if the economy was better,” agrees Mary Scalco, DLI’s CEO. “There are so many alternatives now, I think people are waiting for the cream to rise to the top. In a good economy, people are more willing to take a risk. But if you put in a Class III machine and don’t like the solvent you pick, you can put in another.”
Hydrocarbons have the longest track record in the industry, with low-flashpoint petroleum solvents such as Stoddard dominating the fireproof, factory-style facilities of the 1930s. Since 1994, high-flashpoint isoparaffin formulations such as Exxon DF-2000 and Chevron-Phillips EcoSolv have improved upon the early hydrocarbons by almost eliminating the aromatic compounds they contain and permitting operators to use them in plants-on-premises with little risk of explosion or fire.
High-flashpoint hydrocarbons offer gentle cleaning on a wide variety of consumer garments and biodegrade easily. They are still volatile organic compounds (VOCs), but have extremely low emissions when used in modern, dry-to-dry machinery, and largely eliminate the bacterial growth and odors once associated with petroleum solvents. As a result, hydrocarbons have attained a tried-and-true position among the alternatives. “Given the widespread acceptance of HFHC solvent by all of the major equipment and detergent manufacturers, HFHC is already established as the primary solvent for those considering a replacement for perc,” Beard says.
Also running in Class III machinery, GreenEarth has gone from industry upstart to industry stalwart since its introduction in 1999, aided in part by Environment Canada’s recent ruling that its main ingredient, D5 silicone, is not a threat to the environment or human health. GreenEarth has more than 900 users in the U.S. today, including big chains such as Men’s Wearhouse and Procter & Gamble’s TIDE stores, whose customers appreciate its gentle cleaning and odor-free results.
“GreenEarth has a proven technology,” says Tim Maxwell, president of Kansas City-based GreenEarth Cleaning LLC. “It has withstood regulatory scrutiny, the scrutiny of the dry cleaning industry and the operators using it, and the scrutiny of landlords and property managers. We continue to attract more progressive operators and continue to grow.”
Introduced less than two years ago, Kreussler’s SolvonK4 offers perc-like properties in an “environmentally friendly” solvent. The acetal has already attracted 163 users in the U.S., and manufacturers have been quick to join the fold, offering machines optimized for SolvonK4’s unique distillation, drying and deodorization requirements.
SolvonK4 offers cleaning power near that of perc on a variety of garments and stains, with cycle times of 58 to 70 minutes to help rid clothing of its distinctive odor. “We are very happy with what we’ve been able to do with the solvent,” says Richard Fitzpatrick, vice president of Tampa-based Kreussler Inc. “For somebody who really wants to be able to use an alternative without having to jump through hoops or change how you spot, K4 offers an advantage. It’s a seamless transition for most users.”
Coming Wednesday: Updates on Rynex, GenX, Fabrisolv, DrySolv and Solvair