Chemical Recycling: Irene Méndez, GSF

8 January 2024

Irene Méndez, R&D Enzymatic Depolymerization, GSF

Irene Méndez, R&D Enzymatic Depolymerization, GSF

Ahead of AMI's Chemical Recycling event in March 2024, Irene Méndez shares insights on current and future market trends and challenges, and the recent developments in this growing industry.

What is the most important lesson you have learned through your work on chemical recycling?

For us at GSF, chemical or advanced recycling will be a significant part of the solution for the massive environmental crisis of plastic “waste”. We like to call it “used” plastic because the word “waste” is just a characterization of its current use… It is a contaminant only if it remains in the environment. Our company has developed two very distinct technologies, and at the AMI Chemical Recycling event we will showcase our Room-Temperature Enzymatic Depolymerization.

What common misconceptions do people have about advanced / chemical recycling? How can these be addressed?

There are several, let´s highlight a few of them:

a) “Pyrolysis legacy methods is equal to incineration”. Technically this is a mistake. Plastic does not burn in a pyrolysis. Pyrolysis methods have been appropriately criticized as insufficient to address plastic waste, both economically and environmentally. However, we developed a novel approach that addresses both the criticisms and unlocks the ability of any pyrolysis to upcycle the vast quantities of used plastics, that are currently not recycled.

b) “Recycling plastics leads to more consumption, and there are better substitutes”. Also, a misconception. When you analyse the complete life cycle of each competing material (plastic vs cotton vs paper vs glass) there are many products where plastic has an overall lower carbon footprint. If we complement this with an enzymatic depolymerization process, there are more benefits to plastics

c) “Recycled plastics are downgraded”: Normally it is often thought that chemically recycled plastics do not have the same properties as prime polymers. Gradually higher percentages of recycled materials are being introduced in new materials because they have same characteristics.

At GSF we believe that our experience supports the development of a scientific performance-based approach to plastics recycling.

What challenges does advanced recycling face in North America and how can these be overcome?

We are currently in testing programs with several multinationals, in 3 different continents. A key issue is policy: Policy makers should focus on creating performance standards for avoiding harm to public health and to the environment and allow innovators like GSF and communities the flexibility to develop increasingly effective ways of meeting those standards.

Will the energy balance of chemical recycling improve in the foreseeable future?

Yes, definitively. The energy balance of both of our technologies is more efficient. On the pyrolysis side, we can achieve a higher yield of plastic-to-oil at 15% to 20% lower energy consumption. On the enzymatic technology, it is done at room-temperature, so it is not energy intensive. Material conversion capacity in new raw materials is increasing and all by-products generated are used.

You will be speaking at the Chemical Recycling USA 2024 event, could you share a little of what you will be talking about and what you are looking forward to.

I will speak about the sub-products recovery methods of a room-temperature enzymatic digestion. We are also focused on specific concentrations of our enzymatic mix or enzymatic complex to degrade colour, contaminants, organic matter, among other aspects of our disruptive technology.

The organic matter for example may be widely used in the Pharma world. There is a significant issue in dealing with Medical/Pharma plastics that may be contaminated with organic matter, per the day-to-day use of such plastics. Our technology can de-nature these elements and may avoid the “hazardous material” spec.

The fourth edition of AMI's Chemical Recycling event returns to Houston, TX on March 12-13, 2024. Find out more