Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Type

Master of Science

Degree Name

Marine Science

First Advisor

D. Abigail Renegar

Second Advisor

Wilson Mendoza

Third Advisor

Patricia Calvo


Plastics, pollution, COVID-19, pandemic, polymers, degradation


The development and use of single-use plastics skyrocketed with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. With the support of world governments, manufacturing companies exponentially increased their output of personal protective equipment (PPE), and wearing surgical grade face masks became a ubiquitous aspect of reopening public society as they proved to significantly reduce the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Over the course of the pandemic, however, environmental researchers began taking note of the improper disposal and increased waste of face masks and other pandemic-associated PPE throughout a wide range of environments.

This study assessed metrics of degradation of black and blue surgical face masks in two environments (indoor and outdoor) over 16 weeks based on four metrics: FTIR spectral analysis and carbonyl index, dry weight measurements, photometric light transmission, and individual microfiber counts. Overall, microfibers counted in seawater and from freshwater rinses were the best metrics used to measure degradation: microfiber counts in seawater significantly increased and microfibers counted from freshwater rinses significantly decreased over the course of the study. The results from the other three metrics were inconclusive as measures of degradation. Black outdoor masks released 45% more microfibers than blue outdoor masks, and black masks in total released 49% more microfibers than both types of blue masks. Logarithmic models generated for blue and black mask microfiber release show that microfiber release rate begins to plateau after approximately 100 years but does not reach a maximum, even after 500 years. Plastic pollution is already a significant environmental challenge and understanding how a global pandemic contributes to it will be crucial for developing conservation strategies in the future.