Garments cleaned by traditional drycleaning methods are not subjected to the same conditions as those garments that are immersed and agitated in water. Although modern wetcleaning machines have eliminated most of the problems that can stem from immersion in water, certain fabrics can shrink, certain dyes can bleed, and fabric texture can be altered just as they can in traditional solvents; neither method is perfect. The primary difference between the two technologies is that drycleaning relies on solvents such as perc and specialized detergents to clean clothes, while wetcleaning uses water and environmentally-preferable detergents that present less risk to human health and the environment than do perc and other traditional solvents.
Customer Acceptance and Satisfaction
Consumer demand for environmentally-preferable cleaning methods is on the rise. This increase is evidenced by the rising number of facilities offering wetcleaning services, the growing number of wetcleaning machines sold during the past several years, and the growing number of new wetcleaning products on the market.
Several studies have addressed consumer attitudes towards wetcleaning. In a 1996 study, the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) found that 83 percent of customers reacted very positively or somewhat positively upon hearing about wetcleaning and that 87 percent rated the quality of the process as good or excellent. The UCLA study reveals that more than 91 percent of customers found wetcleaning to produce excellent or good cleaning results.
As public concern regarding exposures to traditional drycleaning solvents continues to grow, customers will see cleaners who offer wetcleaning as responsible businesses that are concerned about the environment. Several states now offer pollution prevention recognition programs that in part help to promote cleaners who wetclean. Various states are also developing professional wetcleaning certification programs and other incentives for cleaners to adopt environmentally-preferable processes.
Environmental, Safety, and Health Impacts
The EPA Cleaner Technologies Substitutes Assessment for Professional Fabricare Processes, published in June of 1998, concludes that the environmental, safety, and health impacts associated with modern machine wetcleaning are less than those associated with traditional drycleaning solvents. Wetcleaning chemicals are biodegradable and generally benign. As a basis of comparison, the impacts associated with wetcleaning are essentially identical to the environmental, health, and safety impacts associated with laundering.
The cleaning agents in wetcleaning wastewater--if left untreated and discharged directly into a waste, river, or stream--could pose risks to aquatic life. However, wetcleaning wastewater is normally discharged into a public sewer system and treated at the local wastewater treatment facility in accordance with water quality standards established under the Federal Clean Water Act. Under these normal circumstances, risks to aquatic life are minimized.
The wetcleaning process does not generate hazardous waste, air emissions, greenhouse gases, or ozone depleting substances; therefore, compliance with Federal and state hazardous waste regulations is eliminated. As a result, the environmental regulatory burden associated with wetcleaning is much less than the regulatory burden associated with the use of other traditional drycleaning solvents.
Potential human health and safety impacts are limited to minor skin and eye irritation should excess contact occur. Skin and eye exposure to cleaning agents can be eliminated or minimized through adherence to proper operational procedures.
The volume of water used for wetcleaning is greater than that required for traditional drycleaning processes. Wetcleaning consumes from two to six gallons of water per pound of clothes cleaned. Advances in wetcleaning machine technology, such as washers with water reuse tanks, are expected to result in even lesser amounts of water consumption. In general, wetcleaning machines use less water per gallon than conventional laundry equipment.
Several studies have examined water and energy consumption associated with wetcleaning. The most comprehensive study, conducted by UCLA, found that wetcleaning has only a minor impact on water use and that it uses slightly less electricity and slightly more natural gas than drycleaning.
Capital and Operating Costs
Capital and operating costs associated with wetcleaning vary by establishment due to differences in operations, such as daily cleaning load. The costs for modern wetcleaning machines range from approximately $12,000 to $37,000 for a washer and dryer (30 to 50 pound capacity). In comparison, the costs for a perc washer/dryer of comparable capacity range from approximately $32,000 to $47,000 and the costs for a comparable petroleum machine range from approximately $35,000 to $52,000.
In 1999, CNT reported that specialized finishing (tensioning) equipment is increasingly recognized as an essential component of the wetcleaning process. Finishing equipment is not necessary if the cleaner has well-trained hand-finishing personnel. In addition, some manufacturers claim that traditional drycleaning pressing equipment works satisfactorily on wetcleaned garments. However, an investment in specialized wetcleaning finishing equipment will reduce labor costs associated with the finishing process. There are two basic types of wetcleaning finishing equipment, form finishers and pants toppers. The costs of each of the two equipment types range from approximately $6,000 to $12,000. This price range is comparable to that of traditional drycleaning pressing equipment.
Staff training represents an additional cost which can vary significantly depending upon several factors, such as whether the equipment manufacturer provides training and whether training is conducted in-shop or off-site.
A limited amount of wetcleaning may be conducted in a shop's existing, commercial washing machine by utilizing specialized wetcleaning chemicals. To cost-effectively wetclean a substantial volume of clothes, however, requires capital expenditures for new equipment and training.
Wetcleaned garments typically require more finishing work which has fueled concerns that wetcleaning labor costs may be higher than traditional drycleaning labor costs. However, much of the increased labor cost can be offset by lower costs associated with other elements of the wetcleaning process, such as hazardous waste handling and disposal costs. There is less research addressing mixed-use shops, however one recently completed study revealed that total labor production costs decreased slightly when limited wetcleaning was introduced. One factor, which accounts for this decrease is the maximizing of efficiencies between the two processes.
As with drycleaning, wetcleaning requires the purchase of specialized detergents, spotting agents, and other cleaning chemicals, but wetcleaning does not impose the costs and regulatory burdens associated with traditional solvents. In 1997, UCLA reported that most estimates indicate that the increased cost of wetcleaning detergents is more than offset by savings realized through the elimination of the purchasing, handling, and disposal costs associated with traditional drycleaning solvents.
Environment Canada and UCLA have studied energy consumption associated with wetcleaning. A report, published in 1995 by Environment Canada, found that wetcleaning used 75 percent less electricity and 43 percent more natural gas than traditional drycleaning. Another report, published in 1997 by UCLA, found that wetcleaning used 24 percent less electricity and 23 percent more natural gas than drycleaning. Because electricity and natural gas prices vary by region, cost tradeoffs will likewise vary. Overall, however, utility costs amount to only a small percentage of the total expenses associated with wetcleaning.
Impact on Businesses
Modern machine wetcleaning represents one of the latest technological advances in the garment and textile care industry. It is both a commercially viable and an environmentally-preferable garment and textile care method. In addition, wetcleaning enjoys a competitive edge over traditional drycleaning methods due to lower regulatory compliance costs.
As discussed previously, studies indicate that wetcleaning performs as well as traditional drycleaning with respect to most garment and fabric types, reduces human health and safety impacts, reduces environmental impacts, and has a high level of customer acceptance. Presently, however, wetcleaning cannot completely replace traditional drycleaning due to adverse effects on certain fabrics and dyes, primarily acetates, satins, and gabardines. Ongoing advances in fabrics and dyes, in care labeling, and in wetcleaning technology are addressing these performance issues.
Wetcleaning labor costs can be higher than traditional drycleaning labor costs due to the longer finishing times required for garments. However, much of the extra labor costs are offset by cost savings that may occur elsewhere in the process, such as hazardous waste handling and disposal costs. Labor costs can also be reduced if the cleaner invests in labor saving finishing equipment.