Dry cleaners across the state must begin phasing out machines that use a solvent that is both effective and potentially carcinogenic.
However, what may be good for air quality and safety puts a hefty costs on businesses struggling in the down economy.
The solvent, perchloroethylene, is known simply as perc in the business. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, it is the most widely used solvent in dry cleaning.
It also has the potential to cause cancer after excessive amounts of exposure, either through the skin or lungs, and one of the top 10 air contaminants in California, according to the Clean Air Coalition, an environmental group.
As a result, the California Air Resources Board amended its policy toward perc in January 2007, requiring that sales or leases of perc-using machines cease by 2008 and that perc machines be phased out of use beginning July 1, 2010.
Any perc machine 15 years old or older would have to be removed by that date. Younger machines could remain in use until they reached 15 years of age.
That means the last perc machines in California will have to be taken out by 2023. California is the first state to ban perc.
Replacement methods include “wet cleaning,” which uses water and specialized machines to coax dirt out of delicate clothing, or the use of carbon dioxide as a solvent.
While alternatives exist, replacement machines are expensive, running upwards of $100,000, said Julie Ogg, owner of Heritage Cleaners in Sonora.
Her machines won’t need replacement for another eight years, and she plans to hang in there until the end.
“The new machines cost $120,000. That means I won’t be in business anymore,” Ogg said.
She hopes if she waits long enough, the prices on the machines will go down, as they did when more efficient perc machines hit the market.
This isn’t the first time perc has been regulated by the state of California, and the regulation resulted in more environmentally friendly machines.
Ogg’s first machine used 125 gallons of perc per month — her current machine uses 30 gallons a year.
“That’s why I don’t understand,” she said. “I understood where they were coming from years ago when there was so much usage.”
Some local businesses won’t be affected at all. Calaveras Dry Cleaning Co., owned by Bob Firato, said he’s seen this regulation coming for five years, and his business is ready.
Calaveras Dry Cleaning uses a silicon-based chemical for its cleaning. The product is made by GE and Procter & Gamble, and Firato is the only licensee in Calaveras or Tuolumne counties.
“We want to be a trendsetter, for the future,” he said.
Although perc is on the way out, it’s still held high in the minds of cleaners who built their businesses on it. It just cleans better.
“There’s just no comparison,” Ogg said. “It’s by far the best.”