“I’d like to show people what the problem of plastic pollution really looks like”

Oceanographer Mikael Kaandorp appointed as one of the new Faces of Science

PhD candidate Mikael Kaandorp (Physics) has been appointed by the KNAW as one of the Faces of Science. On Faces of Science, young scientists publish blogs and videos about their research and daily life as a researcher. “I want to show people what plastic pollution really looks like,” says Kaandorp. “Many people think that there really are islands of plastic floating in the sea. In reality, it’s countless small pieces of plastic, which also makes it a lot harder to clean up.”

Mikael Kaandorp

Kaandorp studies the different places where ocean plastic is found and how they relate to each other. His data-driven approach is unique: he combines mathematical models with measurements of plastic concentrations in the environment. “Some of the plastic floats, some sinks, some ends up on beaches. I want to puzzle all those pieces together into a coherent whole.” In his research, he uses methods from data assimilation, which is used for example to calibrate weather models, and machine learning to predict when plastic washes up on Dutch beaches.

Life as a PhD candidate

Kaandorp sees Faces of Science as a great way to give high school students more insight into life as a PhD candidate. “What I like about doing a PhD is that I get a lot of time and freedom to study a problem from different angles, and hopefully contribute to a better understanding and solution of the plastic problem. In addition, I also see Faces of Science as a great opportunity for myself to learn how to communicate about my research to the outside world.”

Kaandorp started his PhD in 2018, after studying Aerospace Engineering in Delft. So why the switch to oceanography? Kaandorp laughs. “Many people ask me that. In my Master’s I studied aerodynamics, meaning the air currents around an object. From there, it’s only a small step to the water currents in the ocean. All those phenomena work according to the same physics principles.”

From Mars sand to microplastics

Kaandorp applies similar thinking in his research. In a recent publication in Environmental Research Letters, he describes the fragmentation of ocean plastic using a physics model originally developed to study rocks on the surface of Mars. “Again, the same physics principles apply. The crumbling of rocks into sand works in the same way as the fragmentation of large pieces of plastic into microplastics.”

Een bakje met microplastics

Those microplastics are a very important part of ocean plastic research, Kaandorp explains. “Most of the plastic in the ocean is no more than a few millimetres in size. In order to properly determine where plastic is located, it is important to know in what way large pieces of plastic fragment into this type of microplastic.”


Modelling size distributions of marine plastics under the influence of continuous cascading fragmentation
Mikael L. A. Kaandorp, Henk A. Dijkstra and Erik van Sebille
Environmental Research Letters, 25 February 2021, DOI 10.1088/1748-9326/abe9ea

All researchers are affiliated with Utrecht University