Classic Cleaners Goes Green

Classic One Hour Cleaners, a family-run dry cleaning business on West Broad Street in Falls Church, now proudly displays “green cleaner” on its walls and windows. Rynex-(2)

Classic One Hour Cleaners, a family-run dry cleaning business on West Broad Street in Falls Church, now proudly displays “green cleaner” on its walls and windows.


A Rynex Pro Machine. (Photo: Sean Nyhan)

With the help of a piece of eco-friendly dry cleaning equipment, Hee and Kyoung Kim, the owners of the store, decided to upgrade their back room with the Rynex Pro, a hulking cleaning machine that operates on 50 percent hydrocarbons and 50 percent glycol ether instead of the widely-used chemical known as perchloroethylene, or “perc.”

Perc was a hazardous air pollutant along with 189 other chemicals when the EPA generated a list of the pollutants in 1990 as part of the Clean Air Act Amendments. These chemicals received special attention, and the subsequent regulation impacted certain work practices. For dry cleaners, the widely-used perc posed a threat in their facilities.

“Essentially, you were not allowed to have any leaks around the machine,” said Terry Darton, a regional air permit manager for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. “Leakage of perc meant that the hazardous air pollutant was being emitted into the air.”

The Kim family has been dry cleaning in Falls Church for 20 years. “We love this town,” said Kyoung Kim.

According to Kim, the new machine provides more than a sense of environmental responsibility. The clothes, she said, are softer and lighter after a one-hour session in the machine.

The heightened quality and promised environmentally-friendly production have not arrived at the shop cost-free. The new machine cost approximately $85,000, which is roughly $40,000 more than the previous cleaner. The greener machine also takes 15 minutes longer to clean each load.

“We changed for the environment and our employees,” Kim said. “I’m feeling very happy.”

Hee and Kyoung Kim were equally impressed with the immediate implications the new technology had for their employees as they were with the environmental gesture they were making. After learning about the dangers of perc, the owners decided to upgrade their machine in an attempt to diminish the potential health problems facing them and their staff.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, epidemiological studies have revealed an increased risk of several types of cancer to dry cleaners occupationally exposed to perc, which is also known as tetrachloroethylene.

Perc has not always been on the EPA’s watch list. Prior to its classification as a hazardous air pollutant, the dry cleaning industry had long been using it as a safe alternative. Contrary to the formerly-used petroleum-based solvents, perc was nonflammable and gentler on clothing.

“[Perc] was supposedly better for cleaning, better for people,” Darton said.

Once perc appeared on the EPA list, a burgeoning market for environmentally friendly alternatives took shape. In 1999, a group of former dry cleaners created a company called Green Earth Cleaning. Green Earth developed a process for dry cleaners that used liquid silicone instead of petroleum-based solvents.

Although there are no Green Earth users in Falls Church, all of the licensed users in the state are in northern Virginia. Jay Lee, manager of Cupid Cleaners in Arlington, said his store has been using the Green Earth solvent since they opened six years ago.

After researching several green dry cleaning methods, he and the owners of Cupid Cleaners decided Green Earth provided the best service. “As far as we know, that was the safest dry cleaning solvent that we could actually find,” Lee said.

Since its inception, business has been good for Green Earth. Tim Maxwell, president of the company, said Green Earth has seen various spikes in popularity over the years. Approximately 1500 facilities have licensed the brand name.

“Now is a good time to be in the green business,” Maxwell said. “Now is a very good time for Green Earth Cleaning.” Maxwell reported that the company’s web site sees over 7,000 hits each day. There are over 200 licensed Green Earth machines in California, while Virginia counts only 11.

“A lot of that has to do with regulatory pressures on perchloroethylene and hydrocarbons and glycol ethers,” Maxwell said.

The Rynex Pro machine at Classic One Hour Cleaners uses two of those compounds.

“Although it’s better than perchloroethylene, I would certainly have a hard time saying it’s a green method of cleaning,” said Maxwell of the Rynex Pro.

For small business owners like Hee and Kyoung Kim, stepping up to the greenest level of dry cleaning would require a hefty investment. Lee of Cupid Cleaners reported the cost was between three and four times the price of traditional cleaning methods.

The price tag of environmentally responsible science rises even more after factoring in the buying habits of a consumer in a sluggish economy. Maxwell said that a combination of slower business and the collateral damage of a weak economy have made it very difficult for the traditional cleaner to switch to greener technology. A purchase like the Green Earth line would require a bank loan, and those have become harder to acquire.

Green Earth, Maxwell said, was hit by the economy like many other businesses this year. “I think the first half of 2009 has certainly been slower than we anticipated. But that being said, we’re not nearly off what the industry in general is off as far as new equipment sales.”