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From the Lab Bench to the Halls of Congress

headshot of Anja Brandon
Anja Malawi Brandon.

No amount of briefing from the AAAS orientation could have prepared Anja Malawi Brandon for what was to come during her time as a AAAS S&T Policy Fellow in the office of Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon. “I don’t think I appreciated how much you can really accomplish at the staff level,” she says. 

“It’s a collaborative team… whether it’s my climate and environment team, or our foreign relations team, or our team in state in Oregon to make sure we are thinking through what (an issue) looks like from all sides,” she says.

It was this adaptability and inquisitiveness about science policy that pushed Brandon into applying for the AAAS S&T Policy Fellowship in February 2020.

Recently, she was the primary policy staffer assigned to Senator Merkley’s introduction of the Break Free From Plastics Pollution Act—a bill that she says is heavily influenced by science. Senator Merkley is the lead sponsor of the bill, which seeks to reduce plastic production, increase recycling, and protect frontline and fenceline (nearby) communities from the burden of toxic emissions from plastic waste by changing the incentives of the industry.

For Brandon, the legislation could not have come at a better time. She has been working to reduce plastic pollution ever since she took a class trip to the Seattle Aquarium about 15 years ago.

“I would walk to the aquarium along this pier and there was always plastic under the pier, and it would get wrapped up around the wood pilings and come crashing into the rocks,” she recalls. “I remember it really hitting me hard, seeing this incredibly wasteful product in an environment I was learning to love, and it set me on this journey from a pretty young age.”

Since that time, Brandon has gone on to pursue doctoral studies at Stanford University where she discovered that mealworms can degrade multiple types of plastic waste as a sustainable alternative to landfilling and recycling.

“I was looking at what to do with plastics that are not easily recycled… so I started by looked at polystyrene since it is not really economically attractive to recycle. And we found that mealworms are capable of degrading it rapidly,” she says.

The research got a lot of attention. Appearing on CNN in September 2020, Brandon took the opportunity to make her case to a global audience. She says it was a great science communication experience and inspired her to do further outreach.

As an environmental engineer, Brandon is optimistic that biotechnology might be part of the solution to stop the proliferation of plastic waste by coaxing nature to consume it, and also in producing more biodegradable/compostable materials.

“There are some materials out there now on the market that will bio-degrade in certain environments, those are in many ways better than traditional plastics, but not by any stretch of the imagination an ideal replacement yet,” she says. “I also think that biotechnology is going to help us think through other ways we can recover value from plastic waste.”

Polyhydroxyalkanoates, or PHAs, are being considered as one of the replacement materials for single-use plastics. Brandon agrees it’s a really good replacement for those times when single-use packaging is required. Writing in the journal Current Opinion in Biotechnology in 2019, Brandon delved further into the need for end-of-life conversion of plastics into feedstocks for these types of replacement plastics and also for transition to materials that are biodegradable, non-bioaccumulative and non-toxic.  

The scientific facts on the danger plastic presents to the environment are indisputable, but whether these facts will sway Congress to pass the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act remains to be seen. Brandon remains hopeful. “I am pleasantly surprised from my experience thus far how science-driven and needs-driven policy can be,” she says.

As she waits to see if the Break Free From Plastic Pollution legislation will be signed into law, Brandon has updated her personal regimen aimed at shrinking her plastic footprint. However, she is also quick to point out that even if all of us have a personal responsibility to reduce our plastic waste, plastic producers should shoulder the heaviest burden.

“What I don’t want is everyone wandering around guilt-ridden for all the plastic they are using when they were not presented with any alternatives,” she says. “There is a need for plastic producers to take the burden too, rather than the more discouraging message of consumers being the sole source.”