New York mulls “green fee”
for organic cleaners
New York cleaners who want to bill themselves as “green” would have to prove that they are and then pay a fee to the city under legislation offered by a city council member.
“Across New York, drycleaners are slapping the label ‘organic’ or ‘green’ on their trucks or shop windows. But they may not be greener than the next guy,” said Council Member Jessica Lappin, who is sponsoring the legislation. “Right now, we don’t regulate this term when it comes to drycleaners, and I think we should.”
Under Lappin’s bill, no drycleaner would be able to advertise its services as “organic,” “green,” “environmentally friendly” or otherwise refer to the environmental impact of its services without first obtaining a license from the Department of Consumer Affairs. The cost of that two-year license would be $340.
To qualify as an “eco-friendly drycleaner” and get a license, a cleaner would have to use liquid carbon dioxide or “biodegradable solvents.”
However, a perc cleaner — or any cleaner for that matter — could qualify by having two or more of the following: recycling for water, hangers, plastic or other items used regularly in cleaning; using energy-efficient appliances or hybrid vehicles; participating in an alternative energy program; or engaging in other environmentally friendly practices as determined by the department of consumer affairs.
Eco-friendly drycleaners would be required to conspicuously display a notice wherever orders are placed or payments made that outlines the environmentally friendly services the business offers. Those who continue to use perc would be required to conspicuously post an additional notice disclosing that practice as well.
Cleaners who advertise themselves as organic without obtaining a license could be fined up to $1,000.
Lappin’s proposal received both support and criticism at a Consumer Affairs Committee hearing in September attended by drycleaners, environmentalists and government officials. The strongest opposition came from the Department of Consumer Affairs, the very department that would be handling the licensing.
Andrew Eiler, director of legislative affairs for the Department of Consumer Affairs, told the committee that he is opposed to the bill because it singles out for licensing a small number of businesses in and industry. Telling the “good guys” they have to get licenses while the “bad guys” don’t doesn’t make sense, he said, adding that the law could be counterproductive and have a “chilling effect” on the industry and discourage drycleaners from going green and advertising their businesses as eco-friendly.
“The Consumer Protection Law’s language on deceptive trade practices already prohibits businesses from falsely purporting to provide service they do not perform,” he said in his testimony. “A drycleaning operation that advertises as environmentally friendly but does not perform ‘green’ services would be in violation of this existing statute.”
Eiler said that only a small percentage of the city’s 1,400 drycleaners advertise themselves as organic or eco-friendly.
Lappin said the problem is that perc and hydrocarbon solvents are technically organic since they contain carbon, so a drycleaner can claim to be “organic” without necessarily being environmentally friendly.
“If perc is organic, and you say you’re organic because you use perc, don't you think that might be legal but deceptive?” she asked Eiler.
“If people just stopped using that label, I would be perfectly happy,” she concluded.
That would please people from the drycleaning industry who testified at the hearing, too.
One of those was Wayne Edelman CEO and president of Meurice Garment Care.
“The word ‘organic’ as it pertains to garment care or drycleaning has continually frustrated me and angered me as a straightforward and responsible businessperson,” Edelman said.
“We carefully position Meurice as eco-friendly. We inform our customers of our process, and how we do it, and we run a multitude of processes,” he said. .
His sentiments were echoed by Nora Nealis, executive director of the National Cleaners Association.
“Nothing could please me more than the City Council taking action on the egregious and disingenuous use of the term ‘organic’ as it relates to drycleaning,” Nealis said.
“The bottom line is, drycleaning by its nature is cleaning in that which is not water, and it is therefore chemicals,” she said. “I don't care whether it's hydrocarbons, I don't care whether it's perc, I don't care whether it's silicone. I'll even go so far as to talk about wetcleaning and the chemicals, detergents, conditioners and additives, bleaches that can be used there. It’s all chemicals.
Nealis said she would simplify the bill to simply say that businesses offering cleaning service to consumers cannot put the tagline “organic” on it.
Industry representatives pointed out that New York cleaners are already heavily regulated under a state law that requires certain types of equipment and operator licensing and certification.
One council member said he wouldn’t be satisfied unless the legislation went further. Brad Lander, who before he became a council member operated an Ecomat wetcleaning franchise in Brooklyn, described himself as a passionate supporter of getting rid of perc.
“For me, the big issue in the industry is perc,” Lander said. “My goal is really to encourage cleaners to move away from perc, help identify those that do, and give them incentives, including public credit and attention for doing so, and not allow others who continue to use perc to get the same level of attention.”
His view was supported by Eric Goldstein of the Natural Resources Defense Council who said he supports the intent of the legislation but was concerned that drycleaners who use perc could still receive an eco-friendly designation.
He added that drycleaners who use hydrocarbon should also be excluded from the ranks of the eco-friendly.
“Hydrocarbons are petroleum-based, they rely on fossil fuels, they contribute to a violation of our local New York air quality standards for ozone smog, and while they might be preferable to perc, cleaners using hydrocarbon solvents shouldn't be classified as eco-friendly,“ Goldstein said.
“Before the city gives its green seal of approval to drycleaners, more consideration is needed to really identify what those activities are,” he said.
After listening to the testimony, Lappin told the New York Times, “There’s no clear consensus on what constitutes environmentally friendly in this arena, but everyone seemed to be in agreement that the drycleaners calling themselves ‘organic’ are a problem.”
“We just have to figure out the best way to tackle it.”