Fate of face masks after being discarded into seawater: Aging and microbial colonization

This article was originally published here

J Hazard Mater. 2022 May 5;436:129084. doi: 10.1016/j.jhazmat.2022.129084. Online ahead of print.


Billions of discarded masks have entered the oceans since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Current reports mostly discuss the potential of masks as plastic pollution, but there has been no study on the fate of this emerging plastic waste in the marine environment. Therefore, we exposed masks in natural seawater and evaluated their aging and effects on the microbial community using a combination of physicochemical and biological techniques. After 30-day exposure in natural seawater, the masks suffered from significant aging. Microbial colonizers such as Rhodobacteraceae Flavobacteriaceae, Vibrionaceae and fouling organisms like calcareous tubeworms Hydroides elegans were massively present on the masks. The roughness and modulus of the mask fiber increased 3 and 5 times, respectively, and the molecular weight decreased 7%. The growth of biofouling organisms caused the masks negatively buoyant after 14-30 days. Our study sheds some light on the fate of discarded masks in a coastal area and provides fundamental data to manage this important plastic waste during COVID-19 pandemic.

PMID:35596986 | PMC:PMC9069998 | DOI:10.1016/j.jhazmat.2022.129084