Cleaners are fully aware of the greater consumer demand for sustainable and environmentally friendly drycleaning solutions.

But at a time when drycleaning revenues have been hit by recession, they may be asking whether this is the right time to switch from perc to one of the alternative systems.

Marco Niccolini at Renzacci says that the drycleaning markets in both Europe and the USA continue to be affected by the downturn. Claudio Bonvicini of Italian-based manufacturer Ilsa agrees, adding that the worldwide economic uncertainty has not encouraged investment and machine sales.

However, he believes that as the industry shrinks in numbers so standards have greatly improved, thanks to the efficiency of modern cleaning systems. This change, largely driven by regulatory pressure, has prompted close co-operation between the solvent producers and the manufacturers of the latest generation of drycleaning machines.

In his view, legislation is now an important factor in choosing the right technology. He says that drycleaners are now more willing to place their trust in alternative solvents that have been proved to be reliable and this trend is perhaps most noticeable amongst the younger operators.

Bonvicini explains that cleaners often decide to move from perc because they feel the need to re-organise the business to project a different image. So they choose a less “aggressive” solvent to produce a finish with a softer “hand” without any perc odours.”

Tim Maxwell, president of GreenEarth Cleaning agrees that the recession has accelerated the “right sizing” of the North American industry overall. “Many operators were forced to close their doors last year and while GreenEarth affiliates were certainly not immune to the economic downturn, overall, they have felt its effects less and have fared relatively well.”

Jamie Mayberry, vice president marketing at Solvair LLC says that a recent industry survey showed that a majority of operators in three USA regions say that their March 2010 drycleaning sales are showing an improvement over those for March 2009. Still he feels that the market in the USA is unlikely to see significant growth immediately, particularly given the impact of the European Union’s current economic woes.

Mayberry adds that imports of drycleaning machinery to the USA in 2009 were nearly 80% lower than the previous year and he feels that economic conditions and limited access to capital have reduced drycleaners’ ability to invest markedly in technology or equipment.

Hydrocarbon solvent

Regulations governing solvent use are stringent in Europe and ensure that where perc and hydrocarbon are used, they are used safely.

High-flashpoint (isoparaffin) hydrocarbons are next popular solvents in use after perc.

While they are still classed as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), the modern hydrocarbon solvents used in drycleaning, such as EcoSolv from Chevron-Phillips or DF 2000 from Exxon-Mobile, used with state-of-the-art machines are safer and easier to use.

Perc remains Europe’s most widely used solvent but there is a continual, though slow shift to hydrocarbon and wetcleaning, according to Peter Wennekes at Cinet, the International Committee of Textile Care.

In his view, there will be steady growth of systems using hydrocarbon, GreenEarth (particularly in the UK and Belgium), liquid carbon dioxide (particularly in the Netherlands and Germany) and wetcleaning as a result of environmental pressure in western Europe.

Claudio Bonvicini at Ilsa says that as long as the equipment is in good shape and the correct procedures followed, there’s no reason perc cannot be used in Europe.

The solvent continues to offer exceptional cleaning and improved machinery and management practices are helping it continue to be a cost-effective option.

He says: “Perc has a future as long as it remains the preferred choice for the majority of cleaners – but it would be wrong to describe it as the future of drycleaning.”

Renzacci’s Niccolini says that in many countries and in the European Union in particular, legislation is clearly designed to regulate rather than ban the use

of perc solvent.

“Nevertheless, the interest in the machines using hydrocarbon-based solvents is increasing every year,” he says, adding that hydrocarbon could offer many advantages in terms of environmental protection, operators’ health and running costs while still providing effective cleaning on a very wide range of garments.

Renzacci’s Excellence multisolvent range is equipped with its Nature Care System to consistently reduce energy and water consumption.

The machines are designed to produce a high standard of results using hydrocarbon based solvents (KWL) and silicone solvents including GreenEarth.

Renzacci’s Puraclean machine can operate with ecological solvents and with wetcleaning and also provides drying. It is in effect two machines in a closed circuit.

In the USA, the threat of further government regulation against perc increasing. Even in 2007, the media scrutiny of perc prompted The Drycleaning & Laundry Institute to tell its members that before considering an investment in a new drycleaning system they “would be best advised to first consider alternative solvents, and to evaluate them against the difficulties of using perc today.”

Although perc is still a target for regulators, California is the only state to have established a deadline for its statewide phase-out. Perc will be banned by 2023.

Co-residential cleaners (cleaners with a plant that shares a wall, floor or ceiling with a residence of any type) in the state had to remove their perc machine from service by 1 July 2010 and no new perc machines may be installed in co-residential cleaners. This applies to all perc machines regardless of how old they are.

In addition, local air districts within California can formulate their own regulations as long as they meet the state regulations. For example, the South Coast Air Quality Management District in California is introducing an earlier perc

phase-out date of 2020.

This has led to a situation where drycleaning businesses are forced to absorb the cost of adopting alternative cleaning technology to perform their basic services but some authorities are offering assistance. For example, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) operates a grant program funded by a tax on perc use to assist cleaners who wish to switch to non-perc technologies.

Further pressure is coming on perc from the health lobby. The US EPA is in the process of reassigning its classification of perc to a “likely” human carcinogen from the previous classification of “suspected”.

A recent review of the EPA’s proposed reclassification of perc by the National Academy of Sciences Council may give additional momentum to states and cities seeking to phase-out perc. To date, the legislatures of Illinois, New Jersey and Maine have all proposed perc phase-outs.

Mayberry at Solvair says that as additional environmental regulations continue to be imposed at state and local levels, the compliance costs will certainly increase a drycleaner’s operational costs. “These governmental activities will most likely continue to contribute to the growing interest and willingness to explore alternatives to perc.”

Maxwell at GreenEarth agrees. More operators are losing traditional plant locations than at any other time in the industry, he says. “Landlords and lenders are refusing to allow perc to be used as well as requiring cleaners to pay substantial fees for cleaning up soil contaminated with perc. The costs of clean-up are beyond the financial capabilities of most operators, therefore they are being forced out of business.”

Interest in GreenEarth

Interest in GreenEarth seems to be at an all-time high, according to Maxwell, who is optimistic about trends for the future. “It is interesting to note that over 45% of our new licences sales are now to businesses that have previously operated with hydrocarbon as compared with those that were replacing perc machines. Maxwell believes that the regulatory fate of hydrocarbon is becoming uncertain as the USA Environmental Protection Agency is targeting air quality issues.

“We certainly are seeing a lot of hydrocarbon operators converting to GreenEarth, which is easy to do since GreenEarth’s silicone solution can run in most hydrocarbon machines,” he adds.

“We believe there are a lot more hydrocarbon operators out there predisposed to make the switch if restrictions are imposed.”

Maxwell says that the number of GreenEarth operators increased in 2009 despite the economy and he adds that new licence sales rose by almost 20% in the period January to April 2010.

“We’ve been particularly encouraged by the amount of industry interest in GreenEarth Cleaning’s Custom Licence programme“ says Maxwell. Each licence is unique to the individual market and operator but the objective is to afford exclusivity protection. Since the launch at the 2009 Clean Show, a total of 18 custom licences have been awarded so far with more in the pipeline.

Outside the USA, growth is steady. Last year GreenEarth added Mexico, Spain, Portugal, and Sweden to its roster, bringing the total number of countries to twenty, with three more countries likely to be added.

Maxwell believes that the company will also see double digit licence growth annually in Europe.

He believes that GreenEarth’s established environmental credentials are the pivotal reason for the strength of its licence sales.

“All solvent options available to drycleaners will continue to face increased regulatory scrutiny in the coming years. We feel that the established base of environmental, and health and safety studies commissioned to date along with

the ongoing co-operation between global regulators and the Silicones Environmental, Health, and Safety Council provides a degree of confidence in the GreenEarth Cleaning System that is not available with other solvent options.

Claudio Bonvicini at Ilsa (which has a USA-based sister company, Columbia Drycleaning Machines) says that sales for Ilsa’s Ipura system, which was introduced just over four years ago, are expected to reach to reach 1,000 manufactured units by the end of 2010. The Ipura system works with a reduced amount of an aliphatic hydrocarbon solvent injected and dispersed in the drum and the garments are then dried without the need for extraction. The technology gives good results on garments processed, he adds.

The Solvair system is also gaining increased recognition and at Clean 2009 it won the DLI’s technology trailblazer award.

The system uses an eco-friendly solvent for the cleaning process and then rinses the work under pressure using CO2. Clothes are then dried by releasing the pressure, allowing the CO2 to evaporate. Solvair’s Mayberry says that with 18 Solvair systems currently in operation, there is a high level of interest in Solvair in North America, Europe and Asia. The DLI award has proved a useful marketing tool.

Critical remarks by the Sierra Club, the USA’s oldest grassroots environmental organisation were recently withdrawn and the group is now telling USA consumers that “if drycleaning is an absolute must, consider a drycleaning shop that uses Solvair technology.”

Both in Europe and the USA, manufacturers report greater interest in wetcleaning. Bonvicini of Ilsa says: “Wetcleaning is now a necessary reality and complementary to cleaning by solvents.” Ilsa’s Ipura system is able to meet the demand from drycleaners who clean greater quantities of garments in water (or washed in water after drycleaning).

Renzacci’s Niccolini says that wetcleaning represents an important option combining water with innovative techniques.

Mayberry at Solvair says that wet cleaning is a good complementary system to Solvair, so a having both systems would be a good choice.

LCNi has reported on a number of authorities the have introduced initiatives to encourage more businesses to switch to wetcleaning.

“GreenEarth’s Maxwell sees more businesses using wetcleaning as a supplemental system. It efficiently processes a growing percentage of a typical operator’s drycleaning and laundry needs.”