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How Green Are Larchmont's Cleaners?

Find out what the Environmental Protection Agency considers as important factors on the road to greenness.

Who among us doesn't recognize the scent of garments just back from the dry cleaners? 

If you answered "me," that may be a good thing. As the region attempts to become greener, many businesses have joined the movement toward greater environmental responsibility. And the dry cleaning industry is no exception—green and organic cleaners have been growing in popularity.

For examples, one needn't look further than the laundromats downtown. Alan Rivkin is the owner of Embassy Cleaners, which has been in operation since 1937, and serves approximately 6,000 unique customers. Rifkin was particularly perturbed when he recently learned his business was responsible for depositing twenty thousand pounds of plastic in landfills each year.

"I heard about biodegradable plastic being available in various forms, and I begged my supplier to see if it was available in a form that could replace the plastic bags we were using for garment covers," Rivkin said.

As a result of his persistence, Embassy now uses biodegradable plastic for covering customer garments.

Rifkin also imposes a no-idling policy on his drivers when making pick-ups and deliveries. Involved in a one-year partnership with the Greenburgh Nature Center, Embassy is sponsoring the center's alternative transportation electric car, Mini. 

Excelsior Cleaners, another familiar sight in the village, has adopted similar green initiatives. Like Embassy, Excelsior uses biodegradable plastic for their garments. Jonathan Kaufman, the owner, recycles and reuses hangers, and provides recyclable boxes for customers to store their hangers while waiting for them to be returned for recycling. 

Additionally, Excelsior Cleaners features a state of the art digital conveyor that identifies garments by barcodes on tiny paper rectangles affixed to each article of clothing—completely replacing the large, wasteful paper identifying tags.

Chatsworth Cleaners is a third Larchmont dry cleaner with a large customer base.  Owned for over 20 years by Jim and Kelly Kim, the establishment uses a wet cleaning process whenever possible, and hand washes all vintage and delicate items. And whenever space allows, they hang dry as many garments as possible to reduce their reliance on dryers. 

Mr. Kim hopes dryers will soon be obsolete.

"Within the next ten years, there will be no more chemicals used and everything will be true green cleaning," he said.

Now, for those interested in the more complex nuances of green dry cleaning: despite its name, dry cleaning involves the use of a liquid. Early dry cleaners used highly flammable petroleum-based solvents such as benzene, gasoline, and kerosene, which resulted in frequent fires—eventually, the government intervened and established regulations.

Under the watchful eye of the Environmental Protection Agency, the industry eventually adopted less flammable chlorinated solvents, which also resulted in better cleaning results. Today, the dominant solvent used in dry cleaning is perchloroethylene—or, "perc"—and, according to the EPA, 85 to 90 percent of dry cleaners in this country now use perc as their primary cleaning solvent.

But use of perc has sparked another concern, as it has been identified as a potential carcinogen by federal, health, and environmental agencies, including the EPA. 

Change is in the works, however; according to Dave Ryan, a press officer at EPA headquarters in Washington, the EPA has strengthened its requirements for establishments using perc. 

"On July 13, 2006, EPA significantly strengthened air toxics requirements for all dry cleaners that use perchloroethylene," Ryan said. "The rule includes a phase-out of perchloroethylene use at dry cleaners located in residential buildings, along with requirements that will reduce perchloroethylene emissions at other dry cleaners."

Dry cleaners who describe themselves as green or organic do so based on their use of solvents other than perc. But according to Consumer Reports, some professional cleaners label themselves "green" regardless of their  solvent use—so customers should be aware.

Embassy, Excelsior, and Chatsworth cleaners all use a wet cleaning process on clothing that is recognized by the EPA as an effective way to clean garments with environmentally preferable technology. They also are among the 90 percent of cleaners in the country that use the perc solvent for dry cleaning, but follow EPA guidelines by removing any residual traces of perc left in machines. According to Kaufman, if clothes come home from the cleaners with a scent, it is probably because the dry cleaner did not clean out his machines after two to three cycles as required by the EPA.   

Each Larchmont cleaner stressed a similar sentiment—the importance of customer education. To stay green, customers should educate themselves about their local dry cleaner's practices. And from now on, beware of that familiar scent.

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