Is cellulose biodegradable? 

The article will explain the biodegradability of cellulose while also talking about:

  • Can cellulose be composted?
  • Can cellulose be recycled?
  • How to know about natural cellulose?
  • Is cellulose sustainable?

Is cellulose biodegradable?

Yes, pure cellulose is plant-based and has the right nutritional content which can be degraded by the action of microbes. It is used to make products such as textiles, cardboard, and paper. 

As can be assumed from the term, biodegradation is the breakdown caused by the action of microbes. This is an important parameter to ensure that there is no waste accumulation and build-up. 

However, with the rising consumerism, there is an increasing demand for non-natural alternatives which are not sourced from plants but chemicals from labs. This will not be degraded by the action of microbes. 

Therefore, to ensure a stance on the biodegradation of cellulose fibres, it is essential to make sure that the cellulose is organic and natural. Also, no dyes or synthetic chemicals are used to make cellulose textiles. In this case, the cellulose fibres will degrade in about 4-9 months or so. 

What are disposal options for cellulose?

Composting (9 ways to compost cellulose products) 

Many people wonder if cellulose products can be composted. The answer is yes. It can be composted if you are certain that what you have is natural and organic cellulose. If you are unsure if cellulose is non-natural or infiltrated, then it is best to go for other disposal options such as reuse or recycling.

The next big question is how to compost cellulose or what are the ways through which cellulose can be composted. For this, consider the following steps: 

Simply collect your cellulose products’ leftovers, add them with other compostable material and drop it off in a nearby composting facility. 

However, if there are no nearby composting facilities, you can also compost cellulose at home by pursuing the following steps: 

  • Select a suitable place for composting. The place should be a bit distant from your home but should also be accessible
  • Shred cellulose fabrics into smaller pieces 
  • Remove all the non-compostable material such as buttons or zippers et cetera (usually made from plastic or metals) 
  • Make a heap of compostable material 
  • You may either do it openly or prefer a composting bin (which is usually preferred in the case of hot composting) 
  • While making the heap, be careful of the green-to-brown ratio. Green material means nitrogen-rich material such as leaves whereas brown material means carbon-rich material such as cardboard boxes
  • Make alternate layers of green and brown. After each duo, add a thin layer of soil. Keep up until you have 4 feet of the heap. 
  • Continuously mix (every 4-5 days) the heap and be sure to provide the right external conditions which include aeration, shade and appropriate temperature
  • Once the compost is ready, use it resourcefully and wisely 

Recycling

Another efficient way to dispose of cellulose products or fabrics is to have them recycled. This will make the products anew with very little consumption of energy and resources. 

This will also reduce the amount of cellulose waste produced because when cellulose is recycled, there will be no waste production. This can be done through: 

  • Disposing of in recycling bins
  • Transporting the cellulose to recycling facilities
  • Having the nearby recycling centres pick up your cellulose and other recyclable material via appointment 

How to tell if you have natural cellulose fibres?

It has been said time and again that only natural cellulose can be degraded and used to make compost. However, the question still remains: how can you, as a consumer, make sure that the cellulose products (such as clothes, rugs or fibres) you have are natural and non-natural? 

There are simple ways to figure it out. There are three ways to discern between natural and non-natural cellulose (otherwise known as poly-cellulose). 

Dig deep into the producers 

To make sure what you have is natural cellulose, you can start by digging up the vision and mission statements of the manufacturers. If the manufacturers have a green mindset, it is very likely that they will have mentioned it on their websites (as it attracts more consumers owing to the increasing environmental concerns). 

However, if there is no particular information given either on the product description or on their websites, you may want to consider other alternatives. 

Shine test 

This is another way to see if what you have is natural cellulose or non-natural since natural cellulose will not have that much shine to it and rather will have a matt look. 

Texture

You can also tell the naturality of your fibre by focusing on the texture as natural cellulose tends to be softer than non-natural cellulose. Therefore, just have a look at the texture. If your fabric is rough in texture, this either means that it is non-natural or has been adulterated. 

Fire test 

Natural cellulose will be attracted to fire and will catch fire but synthetic fibres will actually curl away from fire and will melt when exposed to fire. You can take a small portion of your cellulose fabric and do this assessment to ensure what you have is natural or non-natural. 

Is cellulose sustainable?

Cellulose fibres and fabrics can be eco-friendly and sustainable if:

  • Cellulose is 100% natural and organic 
  • Cellulose is made without the use of chemicals and fertilisers 
  • Cellulose is used sustainably and dealt with care to avoid over-consumption of resources
  • Cellulose is disposed of sustainably (if it is biodegradable, it is advisable to not dispose of it in regular trash cans) 
  • Cellulose is not dyed and processed chemically 

If these points are kept duly in mind, then cellulose can be called a sustainable fabric and can be way better than synthetic fibres such as polyester in terms of environmental gains and benefits. 

It is usually perceived that natural materials such as natural fibres are eco-friendly and sustainable and will not take a toll on the environment. While this may be true, it is not a necessary perception all the time. 

Therefore, let us assess how sustainable cellulose or cellulose can be. This can be segregated into brackets such as manufacture, processing, dyeing, and disposal. 

When it comes to manufacturing, it can be said that a huge amount of water is used to make cellulose. Therefore, the production of cellulose fibres does rely on substantial amounts of water resources. 

Further, it is necessary to ensure that there are no fertilisers or other chemicals used to make cellulose fibres because otherwise, there will be negative and degradative consequences on the environment and the soil. 

The usability of cellulose fibres also varies based on the consumers. It is important to make sure that the cellulose fibres are dealt with care and necessary precautions so that there is no excessive burden on the resources. 

Lastly, disposal also matters a lot. Since natural cellulose can be degraded by microbes or even composted, it is wise to say that disposing of natural cellulose in regular trash cans would not be a sustainable option. 

Conclusion

It is concluded that cellulose is biodegradable if it is natural and organic. If it is a synthetic fibre or material, it would not be degraded which otherwise can happen in about four to nine months. 

You also can reuse, recycle, and compost cellulose fabrics. The priority order will be reusing, composting, and then recycling. However, if you are uncertain about the naturality of cellulose, composting is not advised. 

The article also discussed some ways to discern between natural and poly cellulose that included the shine test, texture test, and fire test. 

References

  • Degli-Innocenti, F. (2021). Is composting of packaging real recycling? Waste management, 130, 61-64.

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