By all accounts Don Lilly, owner and mastermind behind Global Fiberglass Solutions, doesn’t fit the traditional mold of the industrial business owner.
Despite owning a quickly-growing fiberglass recycling business, Lilly says he studied sociology while attending the University of Nebraska. It’s only been within the last half-decade the 50-year-old Bothell resident has taught himself chemistry and engineering.
“I didn’t start out looking to be a decommissioning expert in wind turbine blades,” he said with a laugh, sitting in a conference room at his businesses’ new headquarters in the Canyon Park business park.
Arranged on the floor around him is a large section of a fiberglass windmill turbine blade. This is Lilly’s bread and butter.
Around six years ago, he and his partner Ken Weyant began exploring how to recycle the 16,000-pound blades, keeping them out of landfills where he said they can take more than 500 years to decompose.
They soon discovered that instead of simply recycling the fiberglass, they could grind it down, mix it with other agents, and use it for a wide variety of products.
“Within that process, it turned out that this ended up being a very good material,” he said.
This new material is already being used to create subway rail ties, utility poles, flooring, particle board and even manhole covers.
Karl Englund, a researcher from Washington State University, has been working closely with Lilly to develop his process for about a year.
“We’ve looked at how we can use these things as functional fillers, or get them into a size or a form that can be used for a variety of different processes,” he said.
While the environmental impact of fiberglass may not be toxic or hazardous like other landfill-bound products, there are compelling reasons to look into recycling.
“What it really amounts to is just the sheer volume of it,” Englund said. “You start putting that kind of stuff into your landfills, and your landfill life starts going down faster and faster.”
Lilly’s reapplication process was patented in May, and he’s moving fast. Once his processing plant is completed, it’s expected to create up to 250 jobs in the Bothell area.
Already, he said he’s talking with the federal Department of Energy about a contract, the Environmental Protection Agency about recycling credits and developers all across the world who want to use his materials, as well as sell their fiberglass to him.
Where his business really shines is in how Global Fiberglass Solutions acquires their raw material, Lilly said.
When wind turbine blades are decommissioned, they are usually transported to a landfill as ‘oversized loads,’ where they are subject to transportation and dumping fees. Lilly buys these blades directly from the wind farms, where workers saw down the blades into easily-movable segments and moves them himself.
He only charges the company what their normal costs would be for disposing of the blades themselves, but there’s icing on the cake, too.
Global Fiberglass Solutions was certified as a WasteWise company by the Environmental Protection Agency, so companies who sell their fiberglass to him receive recycling credits from the Environmental Protection Agency.
According to Washington Waste Management, large items like windmill blades take up valuable space in state landfills, many of which are projected to fill within the century.
Cost and environmental savings are two reasons Lilly believes clients were so interested in doing business with him, including many European corporations.
“We were not only surprised at how much interest they had, but they started to jump on board right away,” he said.
Global Fiberglass composites may eventually help push other industry staples from their throne. In particular, steel and wood have been used as essential building materials, but Lilly says as companies utilize more and more fiberglass, the need for a recycling process becomes even more important.
He said some of his repurposed fiberglass composites are nearly as strong as steel at 19,000 pounds-per-square-inch pressure ratings.
Finally, Lilly said he’s developed a mobile production platform, which can be driven anywhere in the country and can break down and process fiberglass, and then turn it into usable products, like subway ties, on the spot. Once processed and poured in a mold, the new products can be used within two hours.
“This is more than anyone has done anywhere,” he said.
Lilly’s business partner Weyant passed away earlier this year, and Lilly said their chemistry laid the foundation for their businesses’ success.
“We could get in a room and by the time we got out of there, we would have a pretty good idea of what the next steps would be,” he said.
As for teaching himself chemistry and engineering while launching an industry revolution, he had some thoughts on that as well: “We live in the day of the internet. There really isn’t anything you can’t learn if you put your mind to it.”