Case Study: Wetcleaning Systems for Garment Care

As part of a cooperative effort between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the professional garment and textile care industry, the EPA Design for the Environment (DfE) Program recognizes the wetcleaning process (i.e., water-based cleaning systems) as one example of an environmentally-preferable technology that can effectively clean garments.

Currently, most of the nation's 34,000 commercial drycleaners use perchloroethylene (PCE or perc) as a solvent to clean garments. Since 1992, in response to growing health and environmental concerns about perc, EPA has been working in a voluntary partnership with the drycleaning industry to reduce exposures to perc. EPA's DfE Garment and Textile Care Partnership (GTCP) encourages professional clothes cleaners to explore environmentally-preferable technologies capable of cleaning most garments labeled "dryclean only." Numerous companies in the garment and textile care industry have begun to use a water-based system called wetcleaning in place of traditional, solvent-based drycleaning.

DISCLAIMER: This case study has been reviewed by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and approved for publication. It is based on experiences gained from projects conducted by EPA's Design for the Environment Program in collaboration with partners from industry, public interest groups, and research/educational institutions. The information contained in this document does not constitute EPA policy. Further, mention of trade names or commercial products does not imply endorsement or recommendation for use. All product performance information was supplied by the manufacturer(s) and has not been independently corroborated by EPA.

 

Historical Perspective 

Professional cleaners, during the 1930s and 1940s, cleaned about one-fourth of all customers' garments in water. At that time, cleaning in water was a very different process than is modern wetcleaning. It was a labor intensive, hand-washing process used primarily for natural fiber garments and for certain types of soils. Traditional drycleaning solvents were used to clean the remaining three-fourths of customers' garments. Nonflammable drycleaning solvents were developed and introduced during the 1950s. These solvents allowed cleaners to dryclean virtually any type of fabric, including natural fibers. As a result, cleaning in water was no longer viewed as necessary.

Driven by the health and environmental concerns associated with traditional drycleaning solvents, recent advances in wetcleaning technology, garment care, and textile manufacturing have resulted in the emergence of commercial wetcleaning as a viable and environmentally-preferable clothes cleaning technology. Trained professional cleaners are now able to wetclean many garments that typically have been drycleaned, such as silks, woolens, linens, suede, and leather.

 BenefitsChallenges
Effects on ClothesNo chemical smell
Whiter whites
Easier to remove water stains
Better cleaning performance for some items
Some garments can shrink
Environmental EffectsNo hazardous chemical use
No hazardous waste generation
No air pollution
Reduced potential for water and soil contamination
Increased water use
CostA larger portion of the cost of cleaning clothes is associated with workers' salaries rather than chemical production and hazardous waste disposalCleaners may charge more for some items to cover the increased labor costs associated with pressing and finishing
Types of ClothesCotton
Wool
Silk
Leather/suede
Wedding gowns
Highly decorated beads and sequins
Some acetate linings
Antique satin
Gabardine
Some highly structured garments
Availability

All cleaners have the capacity to wetclean some items with their existing equipment and skills.

Nationwide, there are a growing number of wetcleaning shops with specialized equipment and trained personnel.

In order to wetclean the widest range of garment types, knowledge of fibers and fabrics is required along with specialized cleaning and finishing equipment that many cleaners may not yet possess

How Wetcleaning Works 

Modern wetcleaning occurs in a commercial setting and consists of the following key elements: 1) computer-controlled washers and dryers; 2) specialized detergents (that are milder than home laundry products); and 3) trained and skilled personnel. Further, specialized finishing equipment may be required for garment pressing to be most effective. If a cleaner has well-trained and skilled hand-finishing staff, specialized finishing equipment is not necessary.

It is also possible to wetclean garments in laundry-grade washers and dryers. In the absence of modern wetcleaning equipment, this approach requires more finishing labor and is amenable to a narrower range of garment types relative to modern wetcleaning.

Computerized operations allow for precise mechanical control in order to gently wash, dry, and finish garments. Modern wetcleaning machines may be programmed for various settings such as mechanical action, water and drying temperatures, moisture levels in the dryer, and water and detergent volume. The flexibility of this technology provides cleaners with the controls to administer a customized wetcleaning cycle suited to a garment's specified needs.

Others features of the modern wetcleaning process include: a) specialized fabric softeners, b) dye-setting agents that reduce bleeding, c) milder bleaching agents, and d) fabric finishes that restore fabric hand. Further, the production of new fibers and fabrics, that are especially amenable to wetcleaning, is helping to ensure that wetcleaning methods clean garments at least as well as traditional drycleaning methods. The chart opposite outlines the benefits and challenges of modern wetcleaning relative to traditional drycleaning.

Regarding mechanical agitation, a wetcleaner can set a machine to as few as six revolutions per minute to reduce the stress placed on delicate fabrics during the wash cycle. In contrast, a typical home washing machine may rotate (i.e., mechanically agitate) garments several dozen times per minute. To safely clean fabrics that can shrink when washed in water and then dried, cleaners can increase the amount of water spun out of wet garments after the final rinsing cycle so that minimal drying is needed. They can also control the temperature and humidity levels during the drying process to prevent shrinkage.

As an alternative to mechanical agitation, various companies are exploring the use of ultrasonic sound waves and the injection of very small (micron-size) air bubbles to agitate clothes during the wash cycle. It is believed that non-mechanical agitation would be gentler to fabrics and garments, perhaps producing better cleaning results and shortening the finishing process.

Trained wetcleaners also use other tools to ensure that garments are safely cleaned. For clothes that bleed, cleaners can apply an agent that prevents dye from washing out of the garments. New, milder bleaching detergents can be used to remove tough stains without diminishing color. Fabric softeners and finishes can be added during the wetcleaning process to restore fabric softness, body, and crispness. Lastly, wetcleaners possess the equipment and expertise to professionally press and finish all wetcleaned garments.

Does Wetcleaning Involve Laundering or Hand Washing?

For years, professional cleaners have been using methods such as conventional laundering and hand washing in addition to drycleaning. While both of these processes are water-based and require cleaners to know which fabrics need special treatment, they are not the same as wetcleaning. Laundering uses standard washing and drying machines to clean certain non-delicate garments that normally would not be drycleaned, such as cotton slacks and shirts. Hand washing is labor-intensive and therefore limited to very delicate garments such as silk and dyed fabrics. Machine wetcleaning, in comparison, is an environmentally-preferable, high volume method of professionally cleaning clothes using state-of-the-art technologies.

Prevalence of Wetcleaning

The number of professional cleaners using wetcleaning has risen greatly in the past several years. Many are using specially designed and highly automated wetcleaning machines. Others are wetcleaning using their existing professional laundry equipment paired with the new wetcleaning detergents and specialized training. There are currently over 250 cleaners who describe themselves as wetcleaners. However, based upon sales of wetcleaning equipment and supplies, a conservative estimate of the number of cleaners offering some level of wetcleaning suggests over 3,000 establishments, or approximately 10 percent of the garment and textile care industry.

Nationwide, a number of professional cleaners have completely and successfully converted from using traditional drycleaning methods to using modern wetcleaning methods. A much larger group have found that wetcleaning, in combination with drycleaning, is more efficient and economical to implement. These shops utilize either a perc or petroleum machine along with wetcleaning equipment, or send their non-wetcleaned items off-site to either another company-owned shop or to a wholesaler. Each individual shop owner must evaluate his or her operational and financial issues to determine the level of wetcleaning that is most appropriate. By offering some degree of wetcleaning, the professional cleaner is able to provide more cleaning options, adjust their operations to the greatest cost efficiency, and contribute to a cleaner environment.

Performance

The effectiveness of wetcleaning is a much debated question in the professional cleaning industry. Studies indicate, however, that wetcleaning usually performs as well as drycleaning or better for some garments. A study, conducted in 1997 by the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), estimates that the percentage of garments that can be wetcleaned using state-of-the-art wetcleaning technologies ranges from 30 percent to 100 percent of all garments that are typically drycleaned. The percentage varies according to geographic location, customer type, and operator. Moreover, in 1998, the International Fabricare Institute (IFI) stated that most garment care establishments-using their existing equipment and procedures-can wetclean from 30 to 40 percent of all customers' garments with minimal difficulty. IFI further stated that 60 to 80 percent of all customers' garments can be wetcleaned using specialized equipment, specialized detergents, and trained and skilled labor.

One aspect of wetcleaning, generally agreed upon, is that the relative proportion of garments that can be successfully wetcleaned is increasing over time as professional cleaners gain experience with this new technology. Future studies and changes in care labels will help determine the percentage of clothes that can be routinely wetcleaned. On a nationwide basis, wetcleaning is not a complete replacement for drycleaning processes at this time. At present, drycleaning in perc remains the most widely-used method of large-scale garment cleaning. However, a number of professional cleaners have found that they can clean up to 100 percent of all garments (that used to be drycleaned) using automated, state-of-the-art wetcleaning techniques and adequately trained personnel.