Josh, left, and Bob Lilly have a plan to turn old carpet into water filtration. They operate out of the old Westel-Oviatt lumber mill south of El Dorado Hills. Village Life photo by Mike Roberts

Feature Photos

Old carpet fuels sustainability project

By From page A1 | May 29, 2013

“Post-consumer” carpet — the gnarly, old, dog-stained stuff from our tired dens and bedrooms — is clogging the nation’s landfills. Much of it consists of poly-something synthetics that are nearly impossible to recycle.

There’s currently 550 tons of it shredded into neat piles at the old Wetsel-Oviatt lumber mill site in El Dorado Hills, part of a bold project by a father/son team to transform the ultimate sow’s ear, old carpet, into sustainability’s silk purse, a tool to combat stormwater runoff, a primary source of pollution in the nation’s waterways, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Bob and Josh Lilly believe their technology will protects water supplies, prevents flooding and replenishes ground water while sparing landfills and lowering the price of new homes. They are currently seeking regulatory approval to subject their carpet mountain to a bio-chemical process that will devour organic material, toxins and crud in the old carpet and leave behind a benign, durable and absorbent filtration material.

Their company, DBD Sustainability, is licensed to do business in El Dorado County. The Regional Water Quality Board is overseeing the tests.

Roughly 60 percent of post-consumer carpet is nylon-based, and can be readily recycled into more carpet, pads and any number of plastic products.

Most of the balance, 38 percent nationally, is polyethylene- and polypropylene-based, and far more difficult to repurpose.

The silk purse promise of DBD Sustainability’s effort is a range of products that could solve thorny problems in sustainable development, starting with the EPA’s current heartburn, stormwater runoff, the subject of landmark 2008 study by the National Research Council at the EPA’s behest.

The study’s first paragraph acknowledges the role of increased urbanization and stormwater’s rise as a source of pollution in an era when industry no longer dumps waste directly into waterways. It also confirms the toll stormwater surges take on local streams and their inhabitants.

The report was critical of the EPA’s stormwater permitting process. The EPA has since expanded and strengthened stormwater regulations, and issued a rash of citations in 2010 and 2011, threatening industries, builders, farmers and cities from Oahu to Albuquerque with fines and lawsuits for poor stormwater runoff management.

These days, most cities have stormwater management plans that include elaborate designs for “infiltration” structures, basins, trenches, chambers and wells — all designed to get rain water back in the ground before it gets too far.

It turns out to be harder than it sounds. Enter the Lillys, who propose a material that increases the effectiveness of infiltration trenches, increasing absorption, filtration and overall volumes.

Bob, 58, comes to the project as a licensed civil engineer and a successful developer. He’s also a trained biologist and biochemist who has dedicated his life and his retirement fund to the project. His son Josh, 27, trained in synthetic biology, has his dad’s back every step of the way.

Dave Humphreys is their site manager, watching over the shredded carpet stored securely at the old mill.

Once they’ve demonstrated that the carpet conversion process is safe, they can conduct large-scale tests of what Bob has dubbed the “ReFiber Infiltration System.”

The filtration material will be placed in rock-lined trenches deep enough to penetrate the hardpan, about 6 feet in most areas, and topped with decorative aggregate or other permeable landscape material. Periodic maintenance, likely by vacuum truck, will be required to remove sediment, but Bob insists the system will provide higher infiltration volumes and cleaner groundwater at much lower costs than other runoff solutions.

A typical El Dorado Hills subdivision could retain all its runoff on site, he said, making expensive storm systems unnecessary, while pumping a quarter million gallons of filtered water into the aquifer each year.

Green developers apparently like the idea, which is why the Lillys have stockpiled so much shredded carpet. All 550 tons are currently spoken for, according to Josh.

But the Regional Water Quality Board has limited the size of their tests they demonstrate that the bio-chemical process is benign.

A May 8 letter from RWQB Geologist Victor Izzo also questioned the adequacy of their business license, and strongly suggesting that compliance with California’s Environmental Quality Act will be required before the full system can launch.

The letter is the latest obstacle in a multi-year regulatory gauntlet that began with nine months of frustration in Sacramento, and led them to El Dorado County and the isolated mill site, located behind a hill one mile south of the business park. The site originally held the unique “heavy industrial” zoning, and appears to be an ideal facility for anyone with 550 tons of shredded carpet.

The site
Sierra Pacific Industries owns the former mill site, which shut down operations in 2003. General Contractor Doug Veerkamp used it as a headquarters for several years, but has since departed.

Little is left of the mill but the Lillys are putting the largest remaining structure, a massive open-front shed outfitted with a sprinkler system, to good use.

The site is plumbed for reclaimed “blue pipe” water stored by EID in a hilltop reservoir nearby.

El Dorado Hills Fire Marshal Mike Lilienthal, concerned about the potential for fire and noxious gasses, conducted blowtorch tests of the shredded carpet and concluded that the material was safe between 15 and 20 percent moisture.

Humphreys hoses the carpet daily, testing it with a moisture meter. The fire department also stops by without warning to check the moisture level and ensure the shed’s sprinkler system is in working order.

Bob worries about public perception of his work. “Someone somewhere is going to read this and think a big pile of smelly carpet out there can’t be good,” he said.

During a late April site tour the sodden carpet had no odor at 20 feet. At close proximity it smelled no worse than a wet dog.

Sustainable beginnings
Bob spent 15 years developing commercial and residential projects in and around Elk Grove.

He credits his 2009 transition from conventional to sustainable development to UCLA geography professor and evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond, whose 1997 book “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” was turned into a documentary by National Geographic and is still used in classrooms.

“Collapse,” published in 2005, is Diamond’s comparative analysis of how and why some civilizations make it and others don’t. He found that once-thriving societies that did not manage their resources often paid the ultimate price for their resistance to change: societal collapse.

“We were building 5,000-square-foot houses in commuter neighborhoods at the time,” Bob said. “I realized that as an engineer I was driving the truck over the cliff.”

Unlike other pioneers in field, Bob won’t consider any technology that costs more than the traditional alternative. “We’ll have less to spend in the future,” he explained.

The ReFiber Infiltration System will cost several hundred dollars less per home than conventional storm drains, he said.

He’s optimistic that other important discoveries in sustainability are coming, but criticizes the lack of adventurousness in current research, given the scarcity and rising cost of vital resources such as oil and phosphorous, predicting, “If we’re not willing to try new things, to take some risks, we will pay a price.”

One example is phosphorous, which cannot be made it the lab, Bob said. Agriculture increasingly requires it, along with nitrogen and other minerals, to supplement the world’s depleted soils. The “peak phosphorus” debate pits researchers who claim phosphorous reserves are dwindling against mining interests that counter their supplies, located deep in the ground and difficult to verify, are far greater.

“If you run out of it, you run out of food,” Bob said. “It’s essential that we put these life-sustaining nutrients back into food production.”

His second big test is the House Resource Recycling System, which takes household waste into a biochemical process, much like a septic system, and filters out the water for irrigation and the sludge as a safe fertilizer that retains essential minerals.

Josh’s passion is an alchemic synthetic biology process to turn old carpet into a biodiesel-like fuel.

Resource scarcity
Like Diamond, Bob attributes much of modern social and economic problems to resource scarcity. “We’ve picked up the easy stuff,” he said.

By way of example, he cites TV’s famous Beverly Hillbilly. “When Jed Clampett was ‘shootin’ for some food’, it was not unreasonable that ‘up from the ground came a bubbling crude’,” he said. “Oil was still discovered at ground level into the 1950s.”

Oil is now miles below the surface and costs much more to extract. It’s not just oil that’s gotten expensive. “Material costs that were stable for decades have increased dramatically in recent years and will continue to climb,” he predicted. “It’s time to get creative or else dial our lifestyles way back.”

Climate change exacerbates the problem, he said. “It can no longer be ignored, whether or not you believe it’s man-made. Snowmelts are earlier. Glaciers are receding. Water supplies will become less certain.”

Given the right technology and the right priorities, Bob contends recycled material can fill the role of depleted resources at a much lower cost. Unlike raw material, it’s typically not buried deep in the ground and, like his sow’s ear, is readily available at little or no cost.

But someone has to collect it and put it to good use.

“That’s us, we’re the recyclers,” said Bob, “and it’s not an easy gig. This stuff is inevitably dirty, smelly or broken.”

Knowledgeable regulators are essential to any leading-edge resource reclamation effort, he continued. “A regulator that doesn’t know will say ‘no’.”

He praised the planners and environmental regulators in El Dorado County for “asking the right questions” then granting him a business license.

He also appreciates the Regional Water Quality Board, and assures the public, “They are keeping a very close eye on us, and bring a great deal of expertise. They’re contributing to the process.”

Bob soldiers on with a clear vision and a solemn conviction. He dreams of a day when his filtration material surrounds Lake Tahoe, helping keep the water clear.

Asked why he is spending his retirement savings at an old lumber mill while his former building industry peers are retiring to golf courses, he replied, “I can think of no activity more essential to the lives of our children’s children.”

Mike Roberts


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