by Peter Schmidtke
Frequenters of Outpost Foods on 1st and Capitol have undoubtedly noticed the purple and red neon signs announcing the arrival of Natural Cleaners to the Riverwest area. This isn’t your ordinary dry cleaning shop. Natural Cleaners uses environmentally-friendly ‘wetcleaning’ and dry cleaning methods to spiff up everything from suits and delicate lace to wedding dresses and living room rugs. Although it’s only been in the neighborhood since early October, the shop is starting to have that welcome, lived-in feeling. A half-dozen potted trees and flowering plants line the picture windows and the counters, and freshly-pressed clothes on wheeled racks hide underneath plastic wraps in the back. “I felt really strongly about environmental issues,” Marilyn Fleming says when asked about why she opened a non-conventional operation. With seven years of natural cleaning experience, Fleming’s operation is anything but fledgling. In 1996, Fleming, who had previously been a part owner of two dry cleaning shops, bought out her partner’s share of the business and opened up Natural Cleaners. Now she and her son, co-owner Michael Kerkhoff, have three processing centers in the greater Milwaukee area and drop-off locations at 1st and Capitol and on the 400 block of Buffalo St. in the Third Ward. At Natural Cleaners, Fleming’s staff wetcleans many fabrics that are commonly thought to require dry cleaning. “A lot of dry-cleanable fabrics can be wetcleaned, even suits. You just have to really control the temperature, and it’s more labor intensive as far as pressing the fabrics goes,” Fleming says with the authority of someone with 25 years in the business. “Wetcleaning — if you have the right detergents and the right equipment — does a better job of removing soil without the environmental concern of spilling toxic chemicals,” she says. As the name implies, wetcleaning is a water-based method of cleaning, and the solvents used are biodegradable. Wetcleaning requires hefty, specialized washing machines and a specific knowledge of how different fabrics such as rayon, silk, and cotton respond to a range of temperatures. “It’s not just like throwing a suit in the machine at the Laundromat,” she laughs. “It is a big washing machine, but it’s computer controlled.” Their scrubbing arsenal was rounded out last year when Natural Cleaners started using a new, patented silicon-based solvent, GreenEarth, for dry cleaning. Fleming was certified by the Kansas City-based company to use their silicon solvents for situations where wetcleaning is not effective enough. In her opinion the new solvent is just as effective as chemicals like perchloroethylene, or “Perc,” which is used by traditional dry-cleaners. It is also gentler for fine fabrics as well as pearls and sequins. And although the GreenEarth process is, for Fleming, slightly more expensive overall than traditional Perc dry-cleaning, she charges the same amount for both services. “I didn’t feel that charging more was something that we could do to the customers,” she says. Cost is a factor, however, for any dry-cleaning business that wants to go green. “If you were going to start new, I would say it’s not really (a problem),” Fleming says when asked about start-up costs. “But when you are an existing cleaner, it is very difficult to throw everything out and start over.” Replacing washers can cost from $20,000 to $60,000, and cleaners who want to switch from Perc to GreenEarth must purchase new machines. Although Natural Cleaning uses GreenEarth for most of its dry-cleaning, Fleming doesn’t look down on dry cleaners who use only Perc. All dry-cleaners, she says, must follow occupational (OSHA) and environmental regulations including treating discarded machine filters as hazardous waste. “And there are a lot of protections now in the machines themselves — if you have a new, fifth generation Perc machine, it’s very well made. As long as you maintain the machines, there’s not really a concern for leaking of chemicals,” she points out. “Convenience is really the key thing — most people like to be environmentally conscious, but they don’t necessarily want to know the whole history of dry cleaning.” Store hours for the Capital Dr. location are 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 8 a.m .to 5 p.m. Saturdays. In addition to wetcleaning and GreenEarth dry cleaning, Natural Cleaners also offers alterations andtailoring services. Same-day dry cleaning services are available on request, provided that customers drop off items by 8 a.m. For more info about Natural Cleaners, visit www.naturalcleaners.com or call the 134 E. Capital Dr. location at 414/431-0060.