Even the people who do it for a living complain about the smell. And most know that dry cleaning is one of the most toxic mom-and-pop businesses anyone can own.

The reason for both of these major drawbacks is the same thing — perchloroethylene, the most popular chemical in the industry, and one known by its more common abbreviation, “perc.” Perc is so poisonous that the state of California has declared it a toxic chemical that will be illegal as of 2023. If overused or not properly disposed of, it can contribute to smog, poison the water supply, and leech into soils.

And the smell it leaves on clothes isn’t just unpleasant, it can be lethal. That’s why dry cleaners tell you to take the plastic off your clothes and leave them outside for a while. Breathing the vapors of perc indoors with lots of ventilation can still make you sick, and getting too close to it for even a few hours has been directly linked to deaths among homeless people who have their sleeping bags dry cleaned and never wake up after a night of breathing in the vapors.

Mike Waintraub, banker turned entrepreneur, is one of the first dry cleaners in the area to do something about eliminating the toxin from the everyday lives of anyone who wears business suits or dry-clean-only sports wear.

His venture, Captain Dry Clean, in Ewing, is a new business with fantastic timing. Like California, New Jersey has turned its eye toward perc and ordered that it be phased out over the next several years. As the state demands the phase-out of perc — a chemical that requires haz-mat technicians to remove and dispose of it — more and more dry cleaners will have to turn toward a new line of organic and non-toxic compounds. Waintraub uses GEN-X, an organic, biodegradable solvent developed by Wayne-based Caled Chemicals. It costs more to buy than an equal amount of perc but “it gets more mileage,” says Waintraub.

Going green in the dry cleaning industry is a pricey endeavor. Machines able to process GEN-X are newer, more efficient — and more expensive. A standard, perc-compatible machine runs about $40,000 to $50,000. Waintraub’s eco-friendly one cost about $90,000. Waintraub started in the laundry business two years ago as a mobile dry cleaning and laundry pick-up service. As such, he did not have a store (or “plant”) of his own, so he took clothes to be dry cleaned to an established dry cleaner, which uses perc.

When Waintraub decided to start his own business he was at first unaware of the presence of organic solvents. But he quickly learned that he could either go standard or go green. Waintraub’s mentors and former business partners, whom he did not name, encouraged his eco-friendly enterprise, saying that they wished they could go organic. But they were still paying off their perc machine and can’t afford to switch.

This is a common problem. According to industry estimates, 85 percent of dry cleaners still use perc, largely because of the money and time it takes to make the switch to safer, greener practices. Waintraub says the industry has been looking for a viable alternative to perc for years but has, until recently, flopped. He suspects dry cleaners will embrace solvents like GEN-X as quickly as they can, if not for the idealism, then at least for the chance to end their exposure to perc.

As a businessman and, more importantly, as a father, Waintraub considers himself fortunate to not have to choose affordability over danger. “I have a wife and three kids,” he says. “I was a little concerned about perc.” His own father, an electrical engineering professor at Middlesex County College and author of several science-heavy tomes, was delighted to hear of his decision to go green. A “very cautious, very conservative man,” Waintraub’s father is his polar opposite in almost every way, he says. But the two agree strongly that neither’s children should be exposed to perc.

Waintraub’s current career has little in common with his original path. A 1995 graduate of William Paterson University, Waintraub earned his bachelor’s in communications and interned with the Geraldo Rivera show in New York. After college he stayed on at Geraldo for another year, “making no money.”

His dreams of being the biggest thing in the entertainment industry subsiding fast, Waintraub entered the corporate world in finance. He spent about 10 years working for UBS in New York and northern New Jersey before returning to his home town of Hamilton to work in sales for Rue Insurance on Quakerbridge Road. He spent about three years at Rue, “all the while hunting for that big idea.”

The idea came when he noticed that he and his wife, Stephanie, who also worked in finance, at Charles Schwab Capital Markets, just never got ahead on the laundry. He had heard of door-to-door dry cleaning service, but wondered, “Why doesn’t anybody come pick up your laundry?” His brainstorm led him to do what anyone seriously contemplating a mobile laundry business would do — he went to Las Vegas.

Vegas hosts a large, biennial convention for the laundry and dry cleaning industries, and Waintraub learned much about the business side of clothes during his trip in May of 2006. Armed with his knowledge, and some more he picked up from the Internet, Waintraub bought a van, devised a green-clad superhero for his logo, and set off to pick up people’s laundry.

A funny thing happened, though. Waintraub got a lot more dry cleaning business than laundry business. It didn’t take him long for him to realize that dry cleaning was the more lucrative, and he set off to buy a small shop of his own. His first three tries ended in no-sales, but last year he found a spot in Ewing’s Suburban Square Shopping Center.

More than simply being able to do his job without worrying about exposure to poison, Waintraub says he is glad to not be contributing to the state’s environmental problems. GEN-X does not need to be treated. Like perc, it is used, boiled down into a sludge, and “cooked,” and can be reused several times. But unlike perc, no special technicians need to come get it. In the end the clothes smell better and actually come out cleaner, Waintraub says.

Despite the more expensive equipment and larger initial payout for his solvents, Waintraub says his prices are “competitive to any other high quality dry cleaner” that still uses perc. He does not plan to make his money by inflating prices, but in volume. Already, he says, he is seeing a number of repeat customers who often notice the more pleasant smell coming from their clothes.

But Waintraub understands a few things about market realities. One day, not too many years from now, perc will no longer be a factor in dry cleaning and other shops will be able to match his prices for similar services using green chemicals. But by then, Captain Dry Clean (or its alter ego, Captain Laundry, the name of his company’s LLC) might be a franchise. Waintraub sees the endeavor as twofold: brick-and-mortar establishments like his shop now, and mobile dry-cleaning services that would bring laundry to a Captain Dry Clean plant.

“You could buy into whichever one you want,” he says.

— Scott Morgan

Captain Dry Clean, 37 Scotch Road, Suburban Square, Ewing 08628; 609-771-8600. www.captaindryclean.com

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