Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Scare Tactics

A while back, the International Fabricare Institute (IFI) objected to restrictions on the dry-cleaning chemical perchloroethylene (PERC):

If one California regulatory agency has its way the cost of doing business will soar for hundreds of drycleaners in Southern California, simultaneously raising consumers' costs and jeopardizing many cleaners' ability to even remain in business.
A chilling vision of things to come! A paragraph or two later, the IFI complained about the "scare tactics" of PERC foes. (I've mentioned before how odd it is that industry groups can irresponsibly predict economic catastrophe if some chemical is banned or restricted, without being accused of "scaremongering.")

While the IFI shrieked and tore its hair out, cooler heads were discovering that a cheap, environmentally friendly, nontoxic cleaning agent actually works better than PERC:
In 2003, Consumer Reports compared the results of traditional cleaning with carbon dioxide, GreenEarth and wet cleaning. It concluded that carbon dioxide gave the best results, with GreenEarth coming in second. Both outperformed perchloroethylene.
Since CO2 is nontoxic and doesn't produce regulated waste, it seems obvious that cleaners and consumers would be better off cleaning clothes with CO2 wherever possible. A new article on a CO2-based cleaner in Northern California offers a cost comparison:
Shaghafi estimates that it will cost just $3 per load to run the new machines, much less than the $15 cost of cleaning with perchloroethylene.

But the investment in the new technology is significantly more expensive. Blue Sky spent $165,000 on each of its carbon dioxide machines -- far above the $30,000 to $50,000 for other kinds of dry cleaning machines.
OK, then. We'll say that the average conventional machine costs $40K, a quarter of the cost of the CO2 machine. That leaves the business in a $120K hole. However, the cost per load is one-fifth that of the conventional machine, so the owner saves $12 per load. That being the case, you'd need to do 10,000 loads to cover the price differential, which'd probably take two to four years for the average cleaner.

That's not the whole story, though. Cleaners that use PERC are defined as hazardous waste generators, and must comply with the Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA); that's no easy task. They may also face even more stringent local regulations. In short, dry cleaners often end up spending a great deal of money and time on hazmat compliance, and you have to factor this in when assessing the relative costs of dry-cleaning agents.

California is currently offering a limited, relatively modest grant of $10K to cleaners who make the switch from PERC to C02. I don't think this amount reflects the total benefits of such a switch to taxpayers and communities. State and city regulation of dry cleaners is expensive, as is the transport and processing of PERC wastes. And the burden of compliance is such that many dry cleaners may be tempted to dispose of waste illegally, which can be unsafe and expensive for municipalities.

I think states should generously subsidize the cost of this switch among the largest dry-cleaning facilities (i.e., huge industrial operations that function 'round the clock). Having reduced PERC emissions and regulatory costs among the largest generators, they could perhaps ease up a bit on small, neighborhood dry cleaners. Alternatively, they could give large grants or generous loans to small businesses, and tax breaks to bigger companies that adopt the new technology. Either way, the fact remains that PERC is on its way out, and it's silly to try to scare people into dragging out its demise indefinitely. Instead, we should speed it on its way to the graveyard, and reward firms that have devised or embraced a better way of doing things.

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