Dry cleaners in Brooklyn Heights have gone gaga for green, hanging signs in their windows with the word “perc” —or perchloroethylene, the dry cleaning agent now classified by the EPA as a toxic air contaminant, with the large red “Ghostbusters” slash through it. Others have banners, festooned with trees and green grass, claiming they’re “organic.”
Organic dry cleaner? Isn’t that an oxymoron, like “jumbo shrimp,” “military intelligence” or “Marty Markowitz weight loss”? Indeed, most of us have no idea what “natural” and “organic” cleaning even means. And besides, there is no standard definition of “green” dry cleaning. As a result, dry cleaners loosely use these earth-friendly terms to capitalize on the neighborhood’s affinity for green-based consumerism.
Best Cleaners on Henry Street between Pierrepont and Montague streets declares itself “organic” and perc-free because it uses hydrocarbon solvent for cleaning. Not to paraphrase Sam Cooke, but even though I don’t know much about history, I do know that the cleaners are technically correct that their solvent is organic — because everything on the planet with carbon in it (including produce grown under a blanket of pesticides) is “organic.”
But the hydrocarbon solvent used by Best Cleaners is DF-2000, produced by ExxonMobil, which calls DF-2000 “the most cost-effective alternative solvent.” Of course, ExxonMobil’s green credentials aren’t exactly impressive. This is the same mega-company that reportedly funded corrupt leaders in Angola, illegally traded with Sudan, and has lobbied to debunk global warming.
Oh, and one more thing: The Valdez? That was theirs.
But you don’t have to believe me: The Environmental Protection Agency lists DF-2000 as a neurotoxin — meaning it destroys nerve cells — that contributes to smog and global warming.
Sue Pak of Best Cleaners described the store’s method as organic “because we don’t use perc. We use a hydrocarbon machine [that’s] better for the environment and better for the customer.” Somehow that didn’t make me feel better.
Some store owners find it a challenge to both clean clothes properly and quell customers environmental concerns. “People care the most that clothes don’t smell like chemicals,” said Jay Lung, owner of Lung’s Dry Cleaners on Henry Street, between Orange and Pineapple streets.
Lung said he uses “natural methods,” but occasionally he has to pull out the big guns — strong chemicals — to get out tough stains. “If it’s dirty, how are you going to take it out? If no one used them, [dry cleaners] would be out of business.”
Golden Hangers on Clark Street between Henry and Willow streets also offers “organic cleaning,” but its version is hydrocarbon-free. “It’s very natural, just like soap,” said owner Sonya, who refused to give her last name. Golden Hangers also still uses “perc” in its regular cleaning, which according to Sonya is the most effective for removing grease and oil.
It seems almost impossible to figure out how to go green with your dry cleaning. The first step is making sure your cleaning is at the very least done perc-free. But at this point, the only way to be truly “natural” may be to soap up your own duds. Dry cleaning is a dirty business, and it’s difficult to separate the green cleaning from the green pockets.
Juliana Bunim is a writer who lives in Brooklyn Heights
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