New York Times: Dry Cleaners and Greenwashing
By Mireya Navarro
September 22, 2010
New York City doesn’t lack for dry cleaners, but many customers these days want their clothes not only clean but processed with environmentally sound practices. A bill pending in the City Council seeks to help consumers identify environmentally responsible dry cleaners, but some advocacy groups say the legislation would not go far enough.
The bill establishes standards that a dry cleaning business would have to abide by to be considered green and requires that it obtain a $340 license before it advertises itself as “organic,” “green” or “environmentally friendly.” Jessica Lappin, a Council member who is sponsoring the bill, said the goal was to prevent operators from posting those ubiquitous “organic” signs in their windows without doing anything to back it up.
“People should know what they’re getting, especially if they’re paying more,” Ms. Lappin said. “I don’t want consumers to be hoodwinked.”
She said the idea for the bill originated with requests from green cleaners that the city “level the playing field” — and groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, point out dryly that it shows.
One of its main objections to the bill as written is that it allows dry cleaners that use the solvent perchloroethylene, also known as perc, to promote themselves as environmentally friendly as long as the owner also engages in activities like recycling the hangers or plastic bags or using energy-efficient appliances.
Perc has been linked in some studies to cancer and neurological problems, and its use is strictly regulated.
“Dry cleaners would be permitted to hang ‘ecofriendly’ signs in their windows while using a cleaning solvent that, according to government scientists, can adversely affect the human nervous system and can damage the liver and the kidney, especially in occupational settings,” said Eric A. Goldstein, the group’s director for the New York City environment. “Rather than educate consumers, the proposed legislation would actually mislead them.”
Many cleaners have turned to methods that are only slightly less toxic than perc in the eyes of government and environmental watchdogs — for example, the petroleum-based solvents known as hydrocarbons. The environmentally preferable choice for dry cleaning, those watchdogs say, is actually wet cleaning, which involves water and biodegradable detergents. Another acceptable green option is replacing perc with liquid carbon dioxide, but this method requires equipment deemed too costly by the typical mom-and-pop dry cleaner.
Even better, some experts suggest, consumers can avoid buying clothes marked “dry clean only.”
After listening to testimony on Wednesday at a hearing of the City Council’s committee on consumer affairs, Councilwoman Lappin said, “There’s no clear consensus on what constitutes environmentally friendly in this arena, but everyone seemed to be in agreement that the dry cleaners calling themselves ‘organic’ are a problem.”
“We just have to figure out the best way to tackle it.”