Much more than just recycling

Athina Anastasaki joined ETH Zurich in 2019. Her research focuses on the next generation of polymers and recycling processes for these. She wants to recover all the starting materials and use them to produce new materials for other applications.
Athina Anastasaki: "It is impossible to imagine our lives without polymers." (Image: Stefan Weiss)

Your roots are in Crete. What connects you with the island?
We always associate places with people. For me, Crete is linked with my grandparents and family, so everything there feels special. The light, the land, the water – they are all unique. I still feel like I am part of the island, even though I don’t live there anymore.

You deal with polymers, the main components of plastics. What’s your goal?
In our lab, we synthesise polymers with enhanced properties and functions. But we’re also interested in breaking them apart – a process called depolymerisation. We want to make sure that after a polymer does the job it’s designed to do, we can break it apart and retrieve the starting materials, returning them to the circular economy.

Is there a recycling idea behind this?
The concept of depolymerisation is broader than recycling. In traditional recycling, the polymer is melted and reshaped into a new material, usually of lower quality than the starting one. However, in an ideal depolymerisation, all the starting materials, such as monomers or catalysts, are fully recovered and can then be reused to render either the initial polymers or an entirely new material tailored to a different application.

What makes polymers so fascinating?
The word polymer comes from Greek: poly, meaning “many” and mer, meaning “part” – so, many parts come together to form long molecules. One hundred years ago, few scientists believed that polymers existed. Today, almost everything around us is made of polymers, such as clothes, paints, and computer parts. We simply can’t live without them!

You’re active on Twitter. How is social media important for your academic career?
Social media helps you keep in touch with your scientific community, especially at such a challenging time. It’s also a great place for professors to show their human side. If we share our cooking or express emotions, it goes down well with the students and brings us closer.

This text appeared in the 21/02 issue of the ETH magazine Globe.


Athina Anastasaki is Assistant Professor for Polymeric Materials at ETH Zurich.