Time to tell it as it is

15 May 2020

There is too much misinformation out there about wetcleaning which is increasingly being presented as a more environmentally form of drycleaning, writes Roger Cawood. To refer to wetcleaning as drycleaning is a blatant contradiction in terms, he says

It may come as a surprise to those who are new to the industry that wetcleaning has always been an integral part of the service offered by many drycleaners and in recent times it is being increasingly marketed as an alternative, stand alone, service to drycleaning.

While there are some within the industry who honestly believe that wetcleaning has now been developed to the stage where it is a viable replacement for drycleaning, I believe that there can be few experienced drycleaners who would be willing to give up their drycleaning machine and wetclean their whole workload. While many personal wear items today carry aftercare labels that allow or recommend water-based processes there are still very many care labels that dictate that the item must be drycleaned and if these items are wetcleaned without the customer’s knowledge or approval, responsibility for any deterioration in terms of colour loss/migration, shrinkage or distortion, change of, or loss of handle, is likely to fall squarely on the shoulders of the cleaner.

Environmental issues

For almost 30 years wetcleaning has been marketed as being an environmentally friendly alternative to drycleaning: there has never been any proof to support this claim and recent research now shows that in view of hygiene and plastic microcontamination in the effluent, that wetcleaning cannot be considered to be any more environmentally friendly than drycleaning. Northumbria Universities recently published report on low temperature processing shows that while pathogens, in the absence of a bactericide readily survive low temperature water based processes, they are unlikely to survive drycleaning in perchloroethylene thus making drycleaning in this solvent a more hygienic and safer option for personal wear items.

Furthermore, much of the plastic and micro-plastics that are now contaminating our water supplies and the world’s oceans are due to laundering and all types of water-based processing, including wetcleaning. In drycleaning these microplastics and plastic particulates are mainly contained within the still residue which is of course controlled waste and has to be disposed of through a registered waste contractor. In contrast micro-plastic environmental pollutants discharged from wetcleaning cannot at present be removed by our water treatment works.

Clearly wetcleaning together with domestic washing, commercial and industrial laundering and irresponsible disposal of plastic waste by society as a whole, are major contributors to the increasing pollution of our oceans and water supplies. At present there seems little prospect in the near future of our being able to remove micro plastic contamination from wetcleaning/ washing effluent and the effect of these micro-plastics on human health is of serious concern and remains to be seen. In consequence, no water-based textile cleansing process can be described as being environmentally or eco-friendly, nor can low temperature water-based processes be considered to be hygienic when in the absence of any form of anti-bacterial/ anti-viral control, pathogens can readily survive the low temperatures employed in wet cleaning.

The UK Government has stated that it is particularly concerned about levels of air pollution within the UK. Bearing this in mind we should also be aware of the fact that both dry- and wetcleaning systems are also contributing to air pollution through fibre particulates being discharged to the atmosphere during tumble drying. While the majority of broken fibre in both systems is retained by air filters (provided the filter screens are maintained in good condition), very small particulates and micro particulates are not and in tumble dryers the air is continually discharged direct to the atmosphere. However, drycleaning machines have totally closed drying systems and discharge to the atmosphere is limited to loading and unloading the machines.

It is understood that Italian based equipment manufacturer Renzacci is currently working on a closed tumbler drying system which is being developed to complement its new Oceano wetcleaning system. The new dryer does not vent to atmosphere thus eliminating much of the plastic particulates that would otherwise contribute to atmospheric pollution. This is seen as an encouraging development that could ultimately lead to all tumble dryers including domestic being required to eliminate exhaust to atmosphere.

Selling our service

There is now an increasing number of wetcleaners who are advertising and selling their service as drycleaning; this is clearly wrong and, in my view, it is contrary to Trades Description legislation.

To refer to wetcleaning as drycleaning is a blatant contradiction in terms and can only lead to customers and the public at large being misled. We have to ask ourselves why should a business decide to misrepresent the process it uses and try to pull the wool over the eyes of its customers.? In my view there can only be one answer, and that is that they believe that their customers would not want their clothes to be cleaned in water particularly if this contravened any aftercare instructions.

Bearing in mind that there is no obligation on the part of wet cleaners to ensure that their process is hygienic, a fact that the public is not at present aware of, the vast majority of customers would be uncomfortable to say the least if they became aware that the process used to clean their clothes could not be regarded as hygienic.

The irony of this situation will not be lost on those in our industry who have for years put up with the uninformed, on-going criticism, relating to the environmental impact of drycleaning and extolling the supposed green credentials of wetcleaning only to find that a wetcleaning competitor is now selling their service as drycleaning.

Going forward

Because of the overheads involved, the perceived need to remain competitive and the lack of public awareness, there is at this time little incentive for wetcleaners to ensure that their system is hygienic and without the addition of a bactericide there is a potential risk of cross contamination due to the mixing of customers personal wear items. I therefore believe that it is in the public interest that manufacturers of wetcleaning detergents, should be compelled to incorporate suitable agents into their products to ensure disinfection, an even playing field and a safer end product that we can all have confidence in. In view of the fact that launderettes and drycleaners can remain open, and restrictions in one form or another may be in place for a long time, this could prove in the long term to be an important step towards slowing down the spread of Covid-19 throughout the population.

Wetcleaning is great system for a wide range of personal wear items, and generally it leaves clothing looking bright and clean with a pleasant fresh odour, but in some instances finishing can be time consuming and difficult with highly developed finishing skills required to produce the standard of finish that the customer has a right to expect. In general, garments that have been dry cleaned are easier and less time consuming to finish, giving rise to better production rates. What is now needed is a lot more effort on the part of clothing manufactures to produce clothing that has been specifically designed and tested to ensure a reliable response to low temperature water-based cleaning and finishing systems.

We now need to take a step back and pull together as an industry recognising that neither drycleaning or any water-based cleaning process is doing the environment any favours, forget about trying to compete on environmental issues, and concentrate on making both systems, which are in fact complimentary, more sustainable for the future.

At this difficult time, hygiene will be seen as a critical aspect of our services and particularly in terms of wet cleaning and OPL’s. The use of Peroxy bleach PAP6 has been found to be effective against a range of pathogens (obtainable from Christeyns or Cole & Wilson and different suppliers may well have access to other brands) and might offer some reassurance to our customers. If difficulties are encountered with supply, a domestic hygiene product such as Dettol Laundry Cleanser could be used in low temperature water-based processes. This latter product is said to be effective against coronaviruses although Covid-19 is not specifically mentioned. The cleaner also needs to ensure that both products are safe for use with individual and specific classifications such as woollens, silks and sensitives.

Covid-19 and beyond

Finally, the rapid spread of Covid-19 is having a major effect on the High Street which, for the foreseeable future, is likely to struggle with a major downturn as shoppers modify their shopping and social habits with many businesses such as restaurants having been directed to close. While some businesses such as local food stores are actually experiencing an increase in sales as those anxious to reduce close contact with crowds and large gatherings shun the supermarkets; but for cleaners in general I think the outlook is very worrying as High Street footfall is now very seriously affected. Although cleaners are allowed to remain open very many have closed until the restrictions are lifted. For those that remain open at this most difficult time, our customers will be particularly conscious of hygiene issues; any reassurance we can project in this respect such as wearing a surgical mask, frequent cleaning of the counter and customer area to emphasise hygiene and cleanliness will help to inspire confidence.

Notices asking customers to respect others and wait outside until the customer inside leaves will help reassure all those anxious about maintaining a safe distance. The introduction of a home collection and delivery service might also help to support turnover as the older generation is at high risk along with those with underlying health conditions who are observing Government advice to self isolate .

When restrictions are lifted, recovery is likely to be slow and protracted as many will have suffered an increase in debt while at the same time a 20% reduction in their income, and sadly many employees and owners, too, will have lost their jobs. Unfortunately we really do need to plan for the worst and hope for the best.


Don’t get steamed up

With the rapid spread of Covid-19 throughout the UK there are increasing concerns surrounding hygiene and how it can be assured during the drycleaning and wetcleaning of personal wear. It has been suggested that the process of steam finishing can be relied upon to provide a high standard of hygiene through thermal disinfection. Regrettably this is not the case as the finishing processes employed throughout the industry are diverse ranging from simple steamer units where garments are free streamed on vertical boards to hand ironing, and a wide variety of garment formers, trouser toppers/ presses and free steam presses such as the traditional Hoffman. There are also huge variations in steam time settings, equipment performance and maintenance all of which have a significant effect on the actual temperatures achieved. In my experience some of the highest temperatures are found on garment tensioning formers some of which can record temperatures of around 120C, in itself, this is insufficient to ensure complete disinfection, but once again due to steam / air settings and maintenance, the actual fabric temperatures can vary widely particularly between the upper and lower parts of garments. It is also the case that some easy care garments may not be finished.

It will come as a surprise to many in the cleaning industry that in some cases the temperatures achieved on automated equipment may be as low as 70C or even lower in the hottest part of the garment and significantly lower in other parts such as the hem area. During hand ironing steam-heated irons seldom get to more than 110C and this also applies to free steam presses such as the Hoffman.

While electric thermostatic steam irons can be set up to 200C for cotton and linen, because of the infinitely variable and indiscriminate nature of the ironing process, parts of some garments may not in fact be covered by the iron, it will also be appreciated that the actual temperatures achieved during hand ironing are dependent on the speed at which individual members of staff iron, and consequently on the workload.

In addition to the above, steam temperatures in individual unit shops or factories also depend on the boiler pressure which will normally vary between 55 - 70psi say (4 - 5 bar). Some cleaners may have looked at steam pressure tables to confirm finishing temperatures. Steam tables can be very misleading, for example the tables give a steam temperature of 155.6C at a steam pressure of 65psi whereas the temperature at the equipment is most unlikely to exceed 110C. These considerable variations in temperature in relation to those quoted in steam tables can be attributed to factors such as variations in the efficiency of various types of steam trap, the distance between the boiler and the equipment, in the quality of the insulation of the steam pipes and finishing equipment and the associated energy losses. The equipment and system maintenance procedures will also influence finishing temperatures.

It will be seen that with the possibility of such low temperatures, the wide variation of temperature across garment types and the random nature of ironing which is arguably the most commonly used finishing method, that thermal disinfection in finishing is not possible in a production environment.

TENSED UP: Tensioning formers can get to around 10 C but this depends on steam settings and maintenance
WELL EQUIPPED: Topper, free steam press, tensioning former and ironing table

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