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.

The environmental regulatory burden associated with wetcleaning is significantly reduced. The need to comply with the Federal and state hazardous waste regulations, and with the Federal and state water quality regulations, is eliminated.

Availability of Wetcleaning Equipment and Detergents

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In response to the growing demand for wetcleaning, the number of companies that manufacture wetcleaning machines has risen from five in 1996 to nine as of May 1999. In addition, during the past several years, the number of companies that supply wetcleaning detergents and other chemicals has increased substantially to the present number of 17 suppliers. The new wetcleaning chemicals can be used in traditional laundry equipment provided that a professional cleaner possesses adequate knowledge of fibers and fabrics or has been properly trained.

Listed below is a current compilation of wetcleaning equipment and detergent manufacturers and suppliers. Also, Greenpeace has compiled a list of professional cleaners who offer wetcleaning. This list is available on the Greenpeace web site at: http://www.greenpeaceusa.org/reports/

Wetcleaning Machine Companies
Aqua CleanEdro
Bowe PermacMilnor
Continental GirbauUniMac
Wetcleaning Detergent Suppliers
AdcoKirk's Suede Life
Aqua CleanLaidlaw
BüfaR.R. Streets
Fiber TechStamford
NOTE: The above listing of wetcleaning manufacturers and suppliers was compiled by the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) (Chicago, Illinois). CNT has published a detailed report describing the types of wetcleaning equipment and detergents that are currently available.

What is Design for the Environment?

EPA's Design for the Environment (DfE) Program is a voluntary initiative that forges cooperative partnerships among government, industry, academia, and environmental groups. One of the primary objectives is to incorporate environmental concerns into the design and redesign of products, processes, and technical management systems.

One of the goals of the DfE Garment and Textile Care Partnership (GTCP) is to provide cleaners with information that can help them run their facilities in a way that is safer for workers, more environmentally sound, and more cost effective. To accomplish this goal, the program utilizes EPA expertise and leadership to evaluate the environmental and human health risks, performance, and cost tradeoffs among clothes cleaning technologies. DfE disseminates information to all interested parties and assists businesses in implementing cleaner technologies.

The GTCP is preparing several documents addressing environmentally-preferable and commercially viable clothes cleaning technologies. The following documents and others are now available in hardcopy and on theGTCP Web page.

  • Wetcleaning Directory (EPA 744-B-99-002).
  • Case Study: Water-Based Cleaning System for Suede and Leather (EPA 744-K-98-017)
  • Case Study: Liquid Carbon Dioxide Surfactant System for Garment Care (EPA 744-K-99-002)

As more information becomes available on other new technologies, EPA will develop case studies addressing them as well.