Are Orca-Friendly Products Coming to Your Home Improvement Store?

Ace Hardware stores near the endangered Southern Resident killer whales’ home are using a new label to show what products won’t hurt the marine environment.

Orca breaching; inset: orca-friendly product and signage. (Photos: Chase Dekker Wild-Life Images/Getty Images; Pacific Whale Watch Association)

Aug 22, 2016· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Move over, dolphin-safe tuna and bee-friendly pesticides, and make room for orca-friendly products on the shelf.

This week, two Ace Hardware stores in Washington state will begin placing “Orca-friendly” tags on products that won’t harm the marine environment of the Puget Sound, the seasonal home of endangered Southern Resident killer whales.

“We weren’t really calling attention to the fact that products are going down the drain or running off from gardens and into the water, so what better way to make a statement than labeling certain products as orca safe?” said Randy Burgess, owner of the two Ace stores. One store is in Anacortes on Puget Sound, and the other is in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, where orcas frequent the waters each spring and summer.

“The consumer has lots of choices, but someone who owns a business has the ability to persuade others to buy products that won’t hurt our orca friends all around us,” Burgess said.

The stores, in conjunction with the Pacific Whale Watch Association, have marked about 100 items with the tags, including Method and Mrs. Meyer’s cleaning products, Dr. Earth insecticides, and E.B. Stone and Gardener & Bloome fertilizers.

(Photo: Pacific Whale Watch Association)

Hobbes Buchanan, owner of San Juan Island Whale & Wildlife Tours and Black Fish Tours, broached the label idea about a year and a half ago.

“So many products are devastating to our environment, and the more I looked at the condition of our oceans, I knew we needed to do something,” Buchanan said. “I realize it’s just baby steps, but...we have a bunch of whales and wildlife in our area hurtling toward extinction, and we really need to help them.”

“We’re thrilled about this,” said Michael Harris, executive director of the 38-member Pacific Whale Watching Association, which has a long history of promoting efforts to save killer whales. “Ultimately it’s about providing consumers with choices, and there’s no better place to facilitate greener choices about household products than hardware stores in orca country.”

By all accounts, orca country is a troubled place. The Southern Resident population, which numbers 83, was listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 2005. Dwindling salmon stocks, especially Chinook—the whales’ preferred prey—and environmental toxins are their biggest threats.

RELATED: To Save the World’s Most Endangered Killer Whale, You Need to Save Its Dinner

Peter Ross, director of Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Pollution Research Program and a leading ecotoxicologist, said two broad categories of contaminants affect orcas. The first includes persistent organic pollutants such as PCBs and DDT, which accumulate in whales even though they were banned years ago.

Some household products, including antibacterial soaps containing the chemical triclosan, “are a bit persistent and do accumulate in food webs,” Ross said.

In the other category are products made with water-soluble ingredients, which are far less persistent and bioaccumulative but nonetheless toxic. They include many cleaning products, some pesticides, and the common herbicide atrazine.

Those contaminants might not accumulate in orcas and other marine mammals, but they could have a negative impact on salmon and other prey fish.

As for fertilizers, Ross said organic compounds are preferable to synthetic ones because they don’t contain metals and other dangerous contaminants. But excessive nutrients from any fertilizer runoff can cause fish-killing algal blooms.

Still, Ross said the orca-friendly label was “a great idea and a good way to connect consumers with the protection of killer whales and their habitat.”

But Ross had a caveat.

“It’s really important to make sure the right kind of chemists and toxicologists and environmental scientists are reviewing the data and being really critical about how we define orca-friendly,” he said.

Burgess, who was in Chicago attending an Ace Hardware corporate convention at the time of this interview, said he was planning to show the label to about 40 Ace Hardware store owners from western Washington.

All 4,700 Ace stores are privately owned, and merchants have considerable leeway in deciding what to stock.

Last year, Ace said it would phase out the sale of pesticides that are known to kill bees. Burgess said he had eliminated those products, and the orca-friendly label was unrelated to that move. Officials from Ace Hardware Corporation did not respond to interview requests.