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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Durez : Yesterday Asbestos and Today Environmental Stewardship History in North Towanda New York

Rare Durez pill cups from RetroChalet.
One of the big problems in plastics manufacturing is proven to me when I open a vintage plastic encyclopedia from 1944 and see how the workers were stirring harsh chemicals or working around Gosh-knows-what vapors without adequate protection. Some of them didn't wear gloves, or any kind of face masks.

Of course back then manufacturing was a good job with long hours and many people made a decent living working in the big plants (same as they do now.) Sadly who was to know that such chemicals would provide so many problems down the road? My grandfather had started his early days coming from Italy to the US working in factories, tearing down ceilings and working around asbestos. Later in life he was a bricklayer and owned his own business building homes but whn I was three in 1976 the asbestos had caught up with him.
This bakelite camera offered by ErinRoseOConnor on Etsy is a could-be example of Durez Resins, and Bakelite Chemicals!

Companies like Durez , founded in 1921 by Harry Dent, in North Towanda, New York started small. Originally called General Plastics Incorporated it started out small--getting into plastics before the plastics boom would allowing Harry's business to boom. Producing Durez, by 1939 it was officially renamed Durez Plastics and Chemicals Inc. Make sure to check out the North Towanda History page which shows shots of the factory, history, and ads too!

Most of their early phenolic resins and powders made at Durez were sold to plastics molding companies who produced early molded parts. Most of these earlier items you may not recognize, but they included dark black or bakelite parts such as  housings for electrical components, bakelite phone handles, coffee pot knobs, iron handles, car parts, foundry parts, and industrial housings.  Just about everything you could or couldn't imagine may have contained Durez!  At the 1931 New York Automobile Show, Durez had molded car parts in over 40 cars, according to Factory & Industrial Management vol 80-81. Pill cups, radio knobs, iron handles, and fifties appliance parts made of Durez. Durez became one of the largest phenolic resins manufacturers of it's day, if not THE largest. Durez .By 1955 it had merged with another company (Hooker) and expanded.  By 1960 new plants were cropping up, including South Shore Kentucky.  In 1978 Durez had made a huge line of foundry resins including shell, hot-box and no-bake types for the foundry industry. Fast Forward to almost 100 years later, today it is owned by Sumitomo Bakelite Ltd. Durez still produces 300-400 different resins for use in all kinds of applications.
Durez lives here:  Assortment of Knobs by CaityAshBadashery

Durez unfortunately isn't a stranger to the type of environmental complaints and health hazards that have plagued most large plastic production companies.  Read all about their lawsuit as it pertains to their N. Towanda New York plant here.   Durez, used asbestos fillers in their phenolic production. This was of course not uncommon to use wood, paper, fiber or cellulose to bind the melmac, melamine or plastics in those days.  At the time little was known about the dangers of asbestos. Not only was asbestos used in the plastic molding process, but the factory in N. Towanda New York, was also heavily insulated with asbestos insulation to contain the heat from steam pipes, chemical lines, boilers, kettles and reactors.  Sadly, Durez was just one of many factories who were operating this way.
Durez Resins courtesy of SBNA

I know many people's families have suffered the damage from such factories, including my own, but I am quite sure it was never intentional. Had we had knowledge then like we do now....... Much has been learned since about the safety and use of asbestos, chemicals, and factory safety. Durez and companies like American Cyanamid have made much progress is being safer, and trying to make amends for the damage they have done. Durez for one has now an Environmental Stewardship plan. Durez is still one of the leading providers of resins and phenolics today. As of October 2010 was still going strong in Canada but the American company has been acquired by SBMA    This is the Sumitomo Bakelite Group Ltd. (of North America.)
Could-be-Durez is all around us.  This cool oven offered by AppleCharlotte on Etsy!

Still many eco friendly enthusiasts would like for plastics production to go away altogether. Even with focus on recycling, the processes used in plastics production still dispel harmful chemicals into the environment, and are directly responsible for putting tons of plastic trash into our oceans and may prove to be harmful to our health yet. Although I tend to agree to most of that, I still think finding a way to reuse vintage plastics (fantastic) will keep these items out of the landfill, and cannot imagine a world without plastics in general.

As I do a quick ten second glance around, my keyboard keys are plastic, my remote control is plastic, my car alarm key fob is plastic, my light cover is plastic, my air conditioner is plastic, my dog's collar has plastic in it.  I wonder what will happen to these items in 50 years.

Please visit:

North Towanda History Museum Page on Durez


I write this blog. My name is Cindy Fahnestock-Schafer but I'm an artist under the name Ira Mency. Why don't you visit my art blog to see what's on my mind?

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