For a long time, the villain of the dry-cleaning industry has been perchloroethylene, an industrial solvent that is designated as a possible human carcinogen.
But as many "green cleaners" are switching to less toxic cleaning agents and closed-loop systems that minimize waste, another culprit is being targeted. Here's a hint: It's filmy, repels water and is a suffocation risk for children.
Clear plastic dry-cleaning bags - cheap, ubiquitous and used only once - are a staple of the industry. Their actual numbers are hard to come by, as the bags have yet to spark the same kind of public outcry as grocery bags. But one estimate suggests that 300 million pounds of dry-cleaning bags end up in U.S. landfills and waterways annually.
Now, however, the issue is spurring some members of the industry to action.
"We have already reduced the amount of plastic we use by anywhere between 80 and 90 per cent," says Jack Creed of Toronto's Creeds Cleaners, which recently switched to a black reusable garment bag.
In Hollywood, meanwhile, a film industry couple is marketing the Green Garmento, a reusable cloth bag that just this week was adopted by La Cienega Studio Cleaners, which services 20th Century Fox and Universal.
Until he made the switch, Creed estimates that his company used anywhere between 50,000 and 100,000 plastic bags a year. "We are only one dry cleaner, but those bags are 43 inches long and two sides; it's a lot of plastic."
The cloth garment bags, which are made of the same non-woven polypropylene material as grocery shopping bags, were sent out to customers free of charge on Earth Day in April. Customers were also given shopping bag in which to return their soiled clothes and asked to include their reusable garment bag, which holds four hangers, with each drop-off.
Creed says he has been surprised by how many customers are reusing their bags - nearly 60 per cent, compared to the expected 10 or 15 per cent.
The switch from plastic to cloth doesn't come cheap. Creed estimates the cost at seven times the price of plastic. But he looks at it not only as an investment but also as a form of advertising.
"It shows leadership," Creed says, noting that the company has been perc-free since 2002 and the plastic bags it used were recyclable. The company also reuses plastic hangers. "It's part of our business; it's not a bazillion million dollars and we have to think about the long term."
Jennie Nigrosh and Rick Siegel, the entrepreneurial couple behind Green Garmento, also have an eye on the future. The L.A.-based duo's reusable bag functions as a laundry bag, a duffel bag and a garment bag all in one.
"The beauty of non-woven is that it breathes," says Nigrosh. "So if the dry-cleaner is using perc, it doesn't get trapped in the plastic. It's not cotton, so it doesn't attract the same kind of microbes as natural fibres. And it can be washed every time in cold water, but also be spot-cleaned with a wipe."
The couple developed a prototype at an industry convention last year and now sell their bags online to consumers and commercial dry cleaners.
The 300-million-pounds-a-year figure is cited on the couple's website, www.greengarmento.com, and was arrived at by Siegel, based on municipal waste management reports and using an environmental impact calculator.
In Canada, Green Garmento bags are being used by the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise and are being distributed by Dalex, a Concord, Ont.-based supplier of laundry equipment. Until more dry cleaners start offering the bags, Dalex will sell them directly to consumers for $6 to $8.
"We are trying to make them as accessible as possible," says Nigrosh, who points out that the website has also been translated into Korean to reach more mom-and-pop shops. "Even though there's more money to be made selling to consumers, our mission is to eliminate plastic and that has to come from the source. We don't want to be the bad guys; we want to ease them into it and not be scared of it."
Dalex sales manager Nick Mazzoli says there are still some wrinkles to iron out before green dry-cleaning bags become widely used. "Some people just aren't that conscious of the environment," he says. Moreover, he believes, dry-cleaners should charge customers for the bags so that they will feel obliged to reuse them.
Whether intentionally or not, Creeds has thrown down the gauntlet to other local cleaners. In an e-mail, Parkers Cleaners president Gary Fine says his Toronto company already provides non-woven bags for soiled laundry and is working on a prototype garment bag that should be ready for customers free of charge by late 2009. Other companies, such as Dove Cleaners, currently offer biodegradable plastic sleeves.
And how are Creeds customers responding? Creed says that he has only received two complaints so far. One client adds that he appreciates the change but admits that "old habits die hard."
Since the switchover, says the customer, who did not want his name used, he has already forgotten to return the bag on a number of occasions. "It's just [a matter of]training and getting used to it," he says. "A few years from now, everyone will probably be doing it. It will become second nature."