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Environment A new dry cleaning chain is out to clean up the industry



Environment: Cleans Clothes With Carbon Dioxide

La Jolla resident Gordon Shaw wants to clean up the dry cleaning industry.

Instead of using environmentally unsafe chemicals to clean clothes, he plans to do the same job with a “green” twist.

Shaw, who sold all of his traditional dry cleaning outlets a year ago, is starting over with the first franchise of Hangers Cleaners in California. The dry cleaner, in the Ikea shopping center in Mission Valley, opens later this week.

The Hangers franchise, with about 50 outlets throughout the nation, offers an environmental alternative to traditional dry cleaning. The process doesn’t immerse clothes in petroleum-derived solvents like perchloroethylene (or “perc”), which Shaw calls a “dangerous” chemical.

Instead, Hangers uses ordinary carbon dioxide , one of the most abundant gases in the air, said Joseph M. DeSimone, co-founder and chairman of Raleigh, N.C.-based Micell Technologies, the parent company for Hangers.

“It’s the same carbon dioxide that you and I are exhaling right now. It’s the same carbon dioxide that’s delivered to Burger King and McDonald’s used to carbonate soda,” he said.

The process for dry cleaning using carbon dioxide is fairly simple. The carbon dioxide is put under high pressure, turning the gas into a liquid at room temperature. Clothes are then immersed in the liquid, along with soaps and detergents to clean the clothes, DeSimone said.

As the clothes dry, the carbon dioxide turns back into a gas, which then vents from the clothes. About 98 percent of the carbon dioxide is collected and filtered for later re-use, he said.


Several Benefits

There are several benefits to this process when measured against conventional technology, Shaw said.

“Perc has got a lot of health issues associated with it, and there’s been a lot of environmental contamination issues associated with it,” he said. “(The new process) has advantages for people who work in this plant and its customers.”

The process is better for clothes as well. Clothes last longer because they aren’t submerged in caustic chemicals, then heated to very high temperatures to remove the solvent, he said.

Cleaning machines will last longer too, since the parts are no longer coming into contact with a caustic solvent, Shaw said.

There are other advantages. At a typical cleaners, almost everything touching the solvent must be considered hazardous waste, and the business must comply with costly environmental regulations for disposal. Not so at his store, he said.

“The lint filter, the carbon filter , in a traditional dry cleaning shop, that’s hazardous waste, because it’s saturated with perc,” Shaw said. “We don’t have to worry about that, because we don’t have that hazardous solvent.”


Real Estate Issues

Yet another advantage is real estate issues. Dry cleaners may be shut out of the most competitive locations because the typical dry cleaners has a reputation for contaminating the soil on which it sits. But Hangers doesn’t have that problem, he said.

In fact, Sudberry Properties, the company that owns the Ikea shopping center, was reluctant to allow Hangers to open a dry cleaners on its site. But once they learned about the technology, they became sold on it, Shaw said.

Jeff Bradley, executive vice president of Sudberry, agreed.

“We’ve established a policy within the company not to do a new deal to put a dry cleaning plant in one of our centers, just because of the potential liability with perc,” he said. “What really convinced us on this was that you can do that in an environmentally clean way, which just seemed exciting and new.”

Bradley said the Ikea shopping center is an excellent location for a dry cleaners because of the large number of condominiums nearby and the amount of traffic at the shopping center.

Shaw noted the traffic in front of the store has helped him already , even before the store has opened. As part of his marketing plan, he put the massive dry cleaning machine right in the front window, and people passing by his store have noticed.


Growing Interest

“To me, (the machine) sort of has that microbrewery look, which is very common,” he said. “The machine has been here almost a month. It’s amazing how many people stop at that window. They’re pointing, and they’re looking, and people pop their head in and ask what it is. It’s a tremendous attention-getter.”

Already, people have been stopping in to drop off clothes and are disappointed when they learn the location isn’t open yet, Shaw said.

Shaw eventually plans to open several stores around the county. Initially he plans to concentrate on making the first California franchise a success.

DeSimone said the company as a whole is positioned for success, pointing to several federal and state initiatives to provide tax credits enticing businesses away from using caustic solvents, he said.

Cleaning clothes with carbon dioxide has the potential to revolutionize the industry, he said.

Carolyn Chase, editor of the San Diego Earth Times, agreed.

“This is an industry that’s been dependent on problematic chemicals for a long time, and I’ve always been hopeful that alternatives could be found that could reduce hazardous waste, worker exposure. Any time you can replace a toxic substance with a nontoxic alternative, I think there’s a great opportunity there.”

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