Perchloroethylene (perc) remains the solvent of choice for drycleaners in Europe and North America, despite increasing pressure to switch to alternative cleaning processes.

Concern about perc’s effects upon the environment and health has led to a search for alternative ways to clean clothing, supported by a new generation of equipment.

Drycleaners can now choose from alternative cleaning systems that are based on silicone, hydrocarbon and carbon dioxide (CO2). In addition wetcleaning is gaining favour in some sectors.

Yet despite the publicity given to perc’s alternatives, drycleaners are not taking to them in any great numbers as yet, a reluctance that may be attributed to cost, practicality or just fear of trying a different method.

Nevertheless, regulation is encouraging what LCNi editor Janet Taylor described as the “next stage of development” for the drycleaning industry. In her report from this year’s Clean Show in Las Vegas (LCNi September 2011), she noted that all the main drycleaning machine manufacturers took the deliberate decision to omit perc models from their exhibits. Instead they were promoting alternative solvent machines and a wide range of alternative cleaning systems were represented – GreenEarth, SolvonK4, Rynex 3E, Ilsa’s Ipura system in both GreenEarth and hydrocarbon variants, Solvair, DF2000, carbon dioxide, wetcleaning and others.

On a global basis, the general consensus seems to be that 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.

At present, nearly 70% of drycleaners in the USA still use perc, alone or in combination with other solvents. Although alternatives to perc have been implemented on a limited commercial scale, there seems to be no single favoured technology that threatens perc in the short term.

The carcinogenicity of perc has been a subject of much study and debate over the past 25 years. In the USA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies perc as a “possible” carcinogen but has tried to move it up to the more serious “probable” category. At state level, there have been efforts to phase-out perc from the drycleaning sector. In 2007, California passed measures to eliminate the use of perc in machines by 2023. Since then, similar proposals have been discussed in New Jersey and New York.

The Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance (HSIA), which represents manufacturers, importers and users of perc, has sponsored research.

HSIA’s executive director Faye Graul says it is actively supporting the drycleaning organisations at state level to support regulations which encourage the safe use of perc but it does not support perc bans. The association has published and distributed to drycleaners a bulletin entitled “The Safe Handling of Perchloroethylene Dry Cleaning Solvent: Beyond Regulatory Compliance.”

Graul argues that the perception that phase-outs seem to be aiming for a complete ban by around 2020 is not accurate and she says that the phase-out movement is not widespread.

Whilst she accepts that the City of Philadelphia and the District of Columbia have adopted some perc bans and restrictions, Graul points out that the EPA’s mandate that perc dry cleaners are not co-located with residential buildings after 2020 does not apply to stand-alone units. At present, California is the only state that will phase out perc drycleaning entirely by 2023.

Graul says that perc drycleaning equipment is now designed to minimise emissions and solvent consumption. The latest of these can clean over 600 lb of clothes using one gallon of perc, which she says is “a more efficient solvent mileage than that for alternative solvents.”

She adds: “Drycleaners have implemented training and safety education programs. The vast amount of data and experience that is available for perc does not exist for many of the alternative solvents, whose potential health and environmental effects are largely unknown.”

Graul points out one such perc alternative is n Propyl Bromide (or nPB), a brominated hydrocarbon. HSIA filed a petition with the EPA to list nPB as a hazardous air pollutant under Section 112 of the Clean Air Act. The EPA is still considering the issue.

Graul adds that the REACH registration classifies nPB as a dangerous health hazard and the word “danger” will be required on all labels.

The European Chlorinated Solvents Association (ECSA) agrees that the new generation of perc machines has improved the recycling efficiency and reduced emissions. ECSA says that perc remains the solvent of choice for 80% of Europe’s drycleaning shops.

Peter Wennekes at Cinet, the International Committee of Textile Care also agrees that perc remains the most widely used solvent in Europe but also says there is a continual, though slow shift to hydrocarbon and wetcleaning.

He believes there will be a 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.

Wennekes says that traditional drycleaning with perc has served the drycleaning industry well for more than seventy years and technological improvements continue to reduce any potential risks. But he also points out that there has been increasing environmental pressure to reduce the use of perc. Soil and groundwater contamination and the risks of exposure to operators, customers and residents near perc drycleaners are growing concerns.

Marco Niccolini at Italian machine manufacturer Renzacci says that 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 wide range of garments.

Renzacci’s Nebula combiclean system can be adapted to work with a wide range of solvents, including hydrocarbon-based solvents (KWL), GreenEarth, Rynex 3E and SolvonK4, to give brilliant results.

This latest generation of combiclean and multisolvent machines provides drycleaners with greater flexibility, says Niccolini. They are already in use in Germany, USA, Spain and Italy. They can now carry out a wide combination of different washing techniques to deliver the best combination of dynamic washing action and solvent according to the kind of garment to be treated.

At Ilsa Dry Cleaning Systems in Italy, the trend is for alternative solvents. The company says that since 2006, sales of its alternative solvent machines now outstrip those for perc machines.

The company’s biggest seller is its Ipura machine, developed especially for cleaning with aliphatic hydrocarbons. The Ipura technology gives good results on most of the garments processed.

It is compatible with a wide range of materials and delicate accessories and produces a good finish, leaving garments with a soft hand and no odour.

Ilsa says it is up to each cleaner to decide which solvent best fits their business requirements. That is why Ilsa introduced its Isol system, which is based on its proven expertise, meets environmental concerns and allows the customer to choose which solvent to use. The Isol machine range is based on Ilsa’s established Jet Clean technology. At this year’s Clean Show, Ilsa showed four machines in operation using four different solvents – one Ipura machine using hydrocarbons, one Ipura using GreenEarth, its latest Isol machine using Solvon K4 solvent (developed by Kreussler of Germany) and another using Rynex 3E solvent (developed by Rynex Technologies).

Stricter environmental regulations have been one of the main causes of the downward trend in traditional drycleaning, according to Thomas Zeck, commercial director at Kreussler, the German chemical manufacturer.

He says that in both the USA and European markets, the relative strengths of perc have been its cleaning power, its affordable pricing and its long tradition of use.

Zeck points out that solvent is a production technology and like any technology, must be judged as to whether it meets the present and future needs of all “stakeholders” both in and outside the industry.

For the drycleaning sector, the most important stakeholder is the consumer and Zeck says that the environmental quality of a product or a service contributes as much to consumer satisfaction as quality, pricing and convenience.

This “green consumer behaviour” applies to all stages of production – from raw material sources through production, to the packaging of goods and services. It applies to consumers in the USA and increasingly to those in Europe.

Zeck says that since the 1990s, halogenated solvents such as perc have remained under attack from consumers, environmental groups and the media, even though perc use in the textile care industry is reliable, safe and in accordance with all regulations.

The introduction of the “Bundes-Immissionsschutzgesetz” in Germany and the Volatile Organic Compounds regulation across Europe put serious limits on the handling of perc in drycleaning shops. In Europe, landlords and the finance industry are increasingly aware of the discussions around the environmental and health risks of halogenated solvents, particularly emission to the atmosphere, soil or water contamination.

This effectively ended drycleaning with perc in locations inside commercial buildings like supermarkets. In many cases the finance industry will refuse loans for operations planning to use perc machines.

Zeck says that the development of SystemK4 by Kreussler has many economical and ecological advantages for drycleaners. The installations of K4 machines are very often replacements for perc machines and in the USA state-of-the-art multisolvent machines have been converted to SystemK4.

SystemK4 is also described as ideal method for use alongside wetcleaning systems. Solvon K4, the acetal-based solvent used in Kreussler’s SystemK4, is biodegradable and eco-friendly and Zeck says that the solvent can clean as well as perc without the use of harmful chemicals. With a KB value of 75 it is effective against fats, oils, resins and waxes as well as water soluble substances but is also gentle on delicates.

SystemK4 comprises four main product elements: Solvon K4, Clip K4, Prenett K4 and Vinoy K4. Zeck adds that the system has been used with great success on a variety of garments such as wedding gowns, leathers, fur, couture gowns, sweaters, jackets and everyday clothes.

Interest in GreenEarth has never been stronger, according to Tim Maxwell, who is optimistic about trends for the future.

Maxwell says that the number of GreenEarth operators has grown, with currently over 1,600 licenses operating in 29 countries worldwide. Most are through Master Licensing agreements and a percentage are independent licensees. The largest numbers of licensees beyond the USA are in the UK, Australia and Canada. The company is in discussions about future licensing in India, China and South America and is also talking to companies in Western Europe, the Middle East, Africa and other countries.

He says: “We have maintained our focus on quality over quantity and continue to be very selective about licensing GreenEarth’s process and trademarks.”

Maxwell says that there are two fundamental reasons for GreenEarth being so strong. The first is the science behind its cleaning process.

“Not only is D5 silicone an environmental solution to the problem of perc, it also offers unique care advantages over perc and the alternative solvents currently available because it can effectively clean virtually any garment,” he says. He points to the findings of the 2003 IFI Fellowship Report, which said the cleaning results for the GreenEarth process are very good, a result that is bolstered by the advances in detergents. “Our track record with publically traded companies that choose GreenEarth as the preferred drycleaning method after doing their in-depth due diligence certainly attests to the strength of the science behind GreenEarth,” he says.

The second reason for GreenEarth’s viability is its business model. “We do not think of it as an alternative solvent, our goal is to be a drycleaning solution provider.” He says that affiliates enjoy higher sales, lower operating and production costs, decreased claims expenses and less time on compliance paperwork.

In the USA, the EPA has specifically exempted D5 silicone as a Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) because of lack of reactivity in the atmosphere. Maxwell is confident of a similar decision in Europe, where GreenEarth is presently listed as a VOC under current EU legislation. “Rather than use vapour pressure as the only determinant of VOC status, we hope that Europe will move towards the EPA stance in the USA which considers atmospheric reactivity as a criteria of VOC status,” he says

Rynex Technologies continues its worldwide roll-out of Rynex 3E, a glycol ether-based drycleaning solvent that is 100% biodegradable.

The company’s European project manager, Marty Brucato says that the Christeyns-Rynex joint venture is currently taking this system into locations beyond the existing affirmation sites already operating in Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, France and Italy. These initial sites include industrial cleaners, large chain stores and individual high-street locations and they will give Rynex a large base of different user applications.

Used with the Gentle Care range from Christeyns, results and feedback are all positive, says Brucato. General drycleaning and drycleaning with Rynex 3E are now part of the training curriculum of Christeyn’s Academy.

He says that the Rynex 3E system has been further boosted by the findings of Solvetex-II study, published by Cinet in March this year. Brucato says the study showed Rynex 3E to be the best alternative to perc on the market today in terms of cleaning results, cleaning better than other alternatives without any detergent additives.

In the USA, Rynex Technologies is currently seeing high demand from all types of drycleaning operations and its customers include businesses in Canada and Mexico. There is also interest from Asia, Oceania, South America and Japan and distribution logistics and agreements are being set up in Austria, Germany, Sweden, the Middle East and India.

Rynex 3E has successfully completed testing at the factories of major machinery manufacturers such as Renzacci, Firbimatic, Realstar, Union, Ilsa, Bowe and EazyClean of Germany.

All testing was done in standard multisolvent machines showing that Rynex 3E does not require “special” machines or expensive new technology to successfully replace hydrocarbon or silicone solvents in these types of machines.