Digging Niches: building a cleaner cleaner | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Digging Niches: building a cleaner cleaner 

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The Greener Cleaner doesn't smell like a dry cleaner--it smells more like a Laundromat. Owner Noam Frankel specializes in clothes with "Dry Clean Only" tags, but he uses an environmentally friendly process called "wet cleaning."

Dry cleaning immerses clothes in a chemical solvent called perchloroethylene, or perc. "It's a highly toxic chemical and a suspected carcinogen that has to be disposed of like hazardous waste," says Frankel. It's also what causes the odor associated with dry cleaning. Wet cleaning, on the other hand, uses a phosphate-free, chlorine-free soap that protects the clothes when they're immersed in water.

"I got the idea from a Chicago Tribune article about a guy from London who was cleaning clothes without using chemicals," says Frankel, who spent ten years in the trucking business before opening the store a year ago. "There was one store like that in New York, and the Center for Neighborhood Technology was trying to do a study on commercial-operating wet cleaning. They had done it in a lab setting but wanted to see how it worked in a commercial setting, and the store in New York wasn't interested."

Frankel called CNT and worked out a deal whereby he would open a wet-cleaning store and CNT would study the results for a year, using a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Before the store opened Frankel and his staff spent three weeks experimenting on Goodwill clothes and in the first few months of operation did a lot of trial-and-error cleaning. Not surprisingly, the biggest problem in those early days was shrinkage.

"Being new technology, there was no manual, no book," says Ann Hargrove, who manages the store's plant. "We more or less had to create one. I was given the soaps and the machines and told to go to work."

Eventually staff members mastered the use of specialized soaps and washing machines with microprocessors. The drying process is also custom-controlled. "The trick is in the knowledge of the garment--what to put with what loads--it's the sorting at the outset."

The Greener Cleaner now has a regular client base that continues to grow--some customers are chemically sensitive, some are concerned about the environment, some just live in the neighborhood. Frankel opened a new drop-off store last week at North and Clybourn. He hopes to one day expand nationally and help pave the way for traditional dry cleaners to switch to safer methods.

"In this country long-term change doesn't happen unless you can make money at it," he says. "We've demonstrated that you can be successful doing what we're doing and still take care of the environment. Now other dry cleaners will see that there's a market and look more closely at it."

The Greener Cleaner stores are located at 5312 N. Broadway and 812 W. North and are open 7 to 7 Monday through Friday and 8 to 5 Saturday. Call 784-8429 or 787-1844.

--Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Noam Frankel by Bruce Powell.

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