By JOHN T. WARD
So heavy was the industry’s reliance on perchlortethylene, or perc, and so strong its aversion to plain old soap and water that H20 was considered a contaminant, said Dorf.
That thinking, however, has turned out to be all wet, thanks to the development of new detergents and sophisticated machinery. And Dorf, the owner of Bright Star Cleaners on the Tinton Falls side of Shrewsbury Avenue, is now running what she said is the first all- “wet” dry cleaner in the Red Bank area.
A 53-year-old Howell resident, Dorf was in the dry cleaning business as an employee for a decade before she bought Bright Star in 1996. She continued as she always had, laundering clothing in perc.
“‘You have to clean in chemicals.’ That’s what I was always told,” she said. “In fact, we were told if we ever got any water into a dry-cleaning machine, that it was contaminated.”
Perc is fairly effective, but the federal Environmental Protection Agency calls it a “likely human carcinogen,” though it does not believe that wearing clothes cleaned with perc pose a risk.
“That chemical is what you smell when you go to a conventional dry cleaner, or when you lift the plastic off your clothes when you get home, which is what they tell you to do,” said Dorf.
After it’s used on a load of clothing, the perc is filtered for reuse. And the gunk that results is some nasty, toxic stuff, she said.
It made for a dirty business — lint, gunk, harsh smells. Dorf and her family, including two dogs and some chickens, had been “organic and holistic” for years, but the contrast with her work environment was stark.
“I tell, you, I was sick of this business,” Dorf admits. “It was just awful. Everything you touched had perc on it.”
Another downside: body odors wouldn’t always come out with dry cleaning.
So when the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection came along offering dry cleaners grants to switch to wet, Dorf decided to give it a try. She had the option of going “organic,” but organic cleaners are merely using a different chemical, she said.
A year of preparation included seminars and a lot of experimentation on garments her customers said were so badly stained they would end up in the trash if she couldn’t clean them. Dorf was impressed by the results.
The DEP gave Bright Star a $30,000 grant, which covered about half the cost of disposing and replacing her machines. “They’re trying to get rid of perc,” she said. In fact, the industry is under a deadline to phase out perc in six years.
Along the way, Dorf said she realized that her understanding of wet versus dry was mistaken.
“Everything we were told had to be chemically cleaned – Armani suits, silk wedding gowns, suedes, leathers – cleans beautifully wet,” she said. “Really, there’s no difference.”
Not that you can take a wool suit and just throw it in your home washing machine, she cautions. “You’ll totally destroy it.” The key is the pairing of water with detergents that are gentler and more friendly to “dry-clean-only clothes,” and computer-controlled machines. Bright Star’s, made by Miele, a German manufacturer famous for its vacuum cleaners, know exactly how much water to add and extract, among other nuances.
What were the downsides of the switch? With perc, grease stains weren’t an issue. Now, if you drop a cruet of olive oil in your lap, Dorf has to do more pre-cleaning. “But I don’t have to work on other stains, like blood and mud and grass and sweat,” she said.
Presser Dana Holmes said the wet system “is better for the clothes,” though for him, “it’s a little more work, a little more straightening out. You have to use a little more tension,” said Holmes. “This put body back into the clothes.”
Upsides? No more residual body odors. No more toxic sludge. The workplace is now a lot cleaner and “everybody here feels clearer,” said Dorf. “There’s not that chemical funk.” She also got rid of disposal costs and the headache of air quality permits.
Dorf admits that in pioneering the wet approach locally, and converting her entire operation to wet, rather than just a portion of it, she feared she might lose some business. In fact, though, her volume has grown, she said, in part because she did not need to raise her prices, as “organic” cleaners have. Consumers are recognizing that patronizing a wet cleaner “is the easiest way to green your routine without a sacrifice.”
“It all just seems like it was a big industry secret, that things can’t get wet,” she said. “But I mean, cows get wet, right?” With clothes, “it’s just how you wet them, how you dry them, and how you process them.”