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Confusion over green dry cleaning leaves some customers steamed

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Dry cleaners advertise themselves as organic but consumers are confused. A customer leaves an Upper West Side Manhattan dry cleaner that advertises organic cleaning. (Photo by Manuel Cortazal)

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Dry cleaners advertise themselves as organic but consumers are confused. A dry cleaner on Manhattan's Upper West Side displays signs touting its organic service. (Photo by Manuel Cortazal)

Leslie Horn believed she did her part to protect the environment when she switched to a new dry cleaner in Rockland County, N.Y., because the business advertised itself as an "organic cleaner."

“After I found out that the new cleaner did ‘green cleaning’ I thought I’d switch,” Horn said. She said she didn’t even mind giving up her the two-minute walk at her regular dry cleaner near her home in the Village of Piermont for the five-minute drive to Tappan, a hamlet overlooking the Hudson River, where she could get her sweaters cleaned organically.

As Americans snap up hybrid cars, step up their recycling efforts and worry about global warming, some are also turning to an increasing number of cleaners that tout their services as “green.’’

But while environmentally conscious consumers embrace this new service, confusion about what constitutes green dry cleaning may make it difficult for the trend to catch on.

Traditional dry cleaning typically requires the use of a toxic solvent, perchloroethylene, known as “perc” among cleaners. Peter Sinsheimer, a researcher with the Pollution Prevention Center at the Occidental College in Los Angeles calls perc a “bad actor’’ chemical.

“There all sorts of adverse health outcomes associated with it,” he said.

For example, the Environmental Protection Agency classifies perc as a probable cancer-causing chemical. In 2002, California imposed a ban on perc, requiring cleaners to adopt less harmful chemicals by 2020.

Sinsheimer said that environmentally conscious cleaners are giving up perc for nontoxic agents like liquid carbon dioxide, CO2. Though climate scientists label the compound a greenhouse gas that causes global warming, the new dry cleaning equipment recycles CO2 that would otherwise have been released into the atmosphere.

“CO2 is net plus for the environment,” said Sinsheimer, who has studied commercial cleaning methods for 12 years. However, installing the new dry cleaning equipment is often too expensive for an industry composed mostly of mom-and-pop businesses.

Sinsheimer said cleaners can opt for simpler, less costly equipment that uses plain water. By adding special detergents to the water, cleaners avoid garment shrinkage, the main draw for using traditional processes.

These new methods aren’t forcing consumers to pay heftier prices, a concern Horn weighed when she switched cleaners.

At Revolution Dry Cleaners in Denver, Colo., which uses CO2, the price to dry clean a pair of pants is $5.99. A check of Denver-area cleaners using perc found some charging as much as $8 to clean the same item.

Shehawk Bryan, at Revolution’s downtown store, said the cleaners keep prices as “reasonable as possible” to better compete with traditional cleaners.

Not all dry cleaners promoting themselves as organic or green fit the bill. An increasing number are adopting hydrocarbon solvents manufactured by petroleum giants like Shell and ExxonMobil. Critics of hydrocarbon solvents recognize that while the petroleum-based product is less toxic than perc, it is not as environmentally safe as water or CO2.

“It’s the same way as a Hess gas station or Exxon saying they’re organic,” said David Kistner, the co-owner of Green Apple Cleaners in Manhattan, which bills itself as the only cleaner in the Northeast using CO2.

Kistner complained that a lack of standards regarding use of environmentally friendlier products in the dry cleaning industry is unfair to customers who seek out green businesses. He said only the food and cosmetic industries are covered by federal regulations that govern what products can carry the label “organic.” Dry cleaners, he said, can use any process they want and advertise their services as organic.

Alan Spielvogel of the National Cleaners Association acknowledged that the lack of industry-wide standards is a problem for consumers interested in protecting the environment.

“Technically what organic means is that the solvent contains carbon,” he said. Spielvogel added that using petroleum-based hydrocarbon solvents doesn’t mean the cleaning process is “any safer or better for the environment.”

“Unfortunately a lot of cleaners are using this for a marketing piece or to promote their business,” he said.

The confusion was on display at the Alec Sutton Cleaners on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, a neon sign in the store window reads “Organic Cleaners.” Even though the cleaning is done on the premises, the workers behind the counter couldn’t describe or name the organic process used to clean the garments.

Even cleaners that still use perc advertise their methods as organic. A check with Horn’s new cleaner revealed that despite a sign behind the counter promoting organic methods, garments are cleaned with perc.

When told of the mislabeling, Horn said she was angry. Now she thinks the only thing green at the cleaners is the word on the sign and the cash in the till.

Still, she says the experience hasn’t dampened her enthusiasm for organic dry cleaning because she now knows what questions to ask.

“I’ve found another cleaner near my home advertising organic cleaning,” said Horn. “I’ll try them now.”

E-mail: mc1313@columbia.edu