Is ethyl cellulose biodegradable? (5 applications of ethylcellulose)

This article shall answer the question of whether ethyl-cellulose is biodegradable.

It shall also cover other areas such as:

  • Properties of ethyl cellulose.
  • Uses of ethyl cellulose.
  • Biodegradation process.
  • Chemical components of cellulose.
  • Properties of cellulose.
  • Uses of cellulose.
  • Hemicellulose compound.
  • Eco-friendliness of cellulose.

Is ethyl cellulose biodegradable?

Yes, ethylcellulose is biodegradable. This is because ethyl-cellulose is an organic compound that is naturally occurring in woody plants and cotton.

Ethylcellulose produced in industries is thermoplastic, semi-synthetic, and therefore not completely biodegradable.

As we shall see in the following sub-topic, biodegradation entails several agents and conditions.

What is biodegradation?

Biodegradation is the process by which natural organic materials are broken down into small particles, water, and carbon dioxide by microorganisms.

Some microorganisms produce methane instead of carbon dioxide, depending on the material broken down or their biological machinery.

The agents of biodegradation include:

  • Water.
  • Sunlight.
  • Temperature.
  • Bacteria.
  • Fungi.


This causes biodegradation by carrying the materials and causing mechanical breakdown.


Some light wavelengths cause the mechanical breakdown of organic materials into smaller particles.


Temperature causes the expansion and contraction of organic materials.

This causes the material to experience stress which in return results in mechanical breakdown.


Bacteria break down organic material through the process of respiration to form small particles which they use to acquire energy.

The most common and active bacteria include:

  • Pseudomonas.
  • Bacillus.
  • Mycobacteria.
  • Aspergillus.


They break down organic matter into small particles which they then assimilate into their body systems.

They include:

  • Yeasts.
  • Mushrooms
  • Molds.
  • Mildew.
  • Lichens.

Types of biodegradation.

Types of biodegradation include:

Aerobic biodegradation.

This entails bacteria and fungi breaking down organic matter by the use of oxygen.

The end products include water, carbon dioxide, small particles( small biomass), and energy.

This process is faster than anaerobic biodegradation.

Anaerobic biodegradation.

This entails the bacteria breaking down organic matter in the absence of oxygen.

The end products include water, methane gas, small particles ( small biomass), and energy.

This process is slower as compared to aerobic biodegradation although it is more efficient.

Steps of biodegradation.

Biodegradation occurs in three distinct steps:

  • Biodeterioration.
  • Bio-fragmentation.
  • Assimilation.


This is the first stage of biodegradation.

Organic materials are mechanically broken down by light, water, and temperature into smaller particles that are easily acted upon by bacteria and fungi.


This is the second stage of biodegradation.

Organic matter is broken down by bacteria and fungi, either aerobically or anaerobically.

Water, carbon dioxide, methane gas, energy, and small biomass are produced depending on the type of process.


It’s the last stage of biodegradation.

Involves the uptake of biomass produced into the body system of the bacteria or fungi to be used in various biological processes.

Types of biodegradable wastes.

The following are the materials that can undergo biodegradation.

  • Food wastes.
  • Human waste.
  • Paper waste.
  • Animal waste.
  • Dead animals.
  • Dead plants.
  • Waxes and oils 
  • Organic alcohol.
  • Organic acids.
  • Natural rubbers.

Advantages of biodegradation.

Biodegradation has several advantages which include the following:

It cleans the environment of the wastes.

Applicable to a wide range of products.

It can be triggered through composting

It is cost-effective.

Results to soil enrichment with nutrients.

Used to produce bioenergy.

Biodegradation through fermentation has led to the manufacturing of drugs.

It leads to the production of organic acids and alcohol.

Disadvantages of biodegradation.

Biodegradation has several disadvantages which include:

  • It leads to wear and tear of organic-based materials such as clothes.
  • It takes a very long time to degrade waste.
  • When used to produce bioenergy, it requires a lot of biomass.
  • It is easily affected by contaminants such as oil and antibiotics.
  • It is only limited to organic matter.

What is ethyl cellulose?

Ethylcellulose is an organic compound that is found naturally in cellulose-producing plants such as cotton.

It is formed by an ethyl group replacing the hydroxyl group in the D-glucose monomers of cellulose.

Properties of ethyl cellulose.

  • It is brittle.
  • It is strong.
  • It is non-toxic.
  • It is not soluble in water.
  • It is biocompatible.
  • It has good thermal stability.

Applications of ethyl cellulose.

  • It is used in coating papers.
  • It is used in making vitamin and drug pills.
  • It is used as a thickener in cosmetic products such as shampoos and deodorants.
  • It is used as a flavor fixative in the pharmaceutical industry.
  • Used as a drug stabilizer.
  • As a filling and binding agent in capsules.


Cellulose is a long linear chain organic molecule that is made up of D-glucose monomers interlinked by glucoside bonds.

Cellulose is the main molecule in the cell wall of plants, fungi, and oomycetes.

Cellulose molecule is the most abundant organic polymer on earth. It is found in large quantities in cotton where it accounts for 90% of the structure, and in the wood where it accounts for more than 50%.

Properties of cellulose.

The properties of cellulose depend on the number and length of glucose monomers making it.

The properties include the following:

  • It is a tasteless molecule.
  • It is odorless.
  • It is hydrophilic; water-loving.
  • It is insoluble in water and most organic solvents.
  • It is broken down by mineral acids into glucose monomers.
  • It is a straight-chain polymer, unlike starch which is branched.
  • It has high tensile strength.
  • It is more crystalline than starch.


Hemicellulose is an organic compound that is similar to cellulose. It is found in plants, making up almost 20% of plant structure.

Hemicellulose differs from cellulose in that it is formed by several sugars like glucose, xylose, mannose, galactose, arabinose, and rhamnose, unlike cellulose is made up of only glucose.

It also contains smaller sugar units as compared to cellulose.

It is also a branched molecule as compared to linear cellulose.

Cellulose esters and ethers.

Cellulose is reacted with several reagents to form compounds such as esters and ethers which are of economic importance.

The hydroxyl (-OH) group in cellulose reacts with reagents to form esters and ethers with a functional group; -OR.

Ester derivatives.

Cellulose esters include the following:

Organic esters are formed from organic acids. 

  • Cellulose acetate is formed from acetic acid and acetic anhydride.
  • Cellulose triacetate forms from acetic acid and acetic anhydride.
  • Cellulose triacetate; is formed from propionate from propionic acid.
  • Cellulose acetate propionate; is formed from acetic acid and propanoic acid.
  • Cellulose acetate butyrate; is formed from acetic acid and butyric acid.

Inorganic ester is formed from mineral acids. 

  • Nitrocellulose (cellulose nitrate) is formed from nitric acid or a nitrating agent.
  • Cellulose sulfate is formed from sulfuric acid.

Ether derivatives.

They include the following.

Alkyl ethers formed from halogenoalkanes.

  • Methylcellulose is formed from chloromethane.
  • Ethylcellulose is formed from chloro-ethane.
  • Ethyl-methyl cellulose formed from chloromethane and chloro-ethane.

Hydroxyalkyl is formed from epoxides.

  • Hydroxyethylcellulose from ethylene oxide 
  • Hydroxypropyl cellulose from propylene oxide.
  • Hydroxyethyl methylcellulose from chloromethane and ethylene oxide.
  • Hydroxypropyl methylcellulose from chloromethane as propylene oxide.
  • Ethyl hydroxyethyl cellulose from chloro-ethane and ethylene oxide.

Carboxyalkyl is formed from halogenated carboxylic acids.

  • Carboxymethyl cellulose from chloroacetic acid 

Is ethyl cellulose eco-friendly?

Yes, ethylcellulose is eco-friendly. This is because it is made up of natural organic compounds which are degraded by microorganisms and also are broken down in the bodies of humans and animals.

According to a study, ethylcellulose is non-biodegradable because it is semi-synthetic and therefore contains some inorganic components which are not susceptible to microbial degradation.

Ethylcellulose does not produce any toxic fumes on burning.


This article has answered the question, “is ethyl cellulose biodegradable?”. 

It has also covered other areas such as:

  • The biodegradation process.
  • Cellulose and its properties.
  • Hemicellulose and its properties.
  • Properties of ethyl cellulose.
  • Uses of ethyl cellulose.
  • Esters and ethers of cellulose.

For any questions or comments please use the comment section below.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): is ethyl cellulose biodegradable?

Is ethyl cellulose natural?

Yes, ethylcellulose is naturally occurring in woody plants and cotton.

It is derived from the cellulose molecule which is the most abundant naturally occurring compound.

The hydroxyl group in the cellulose monomers is replaced with the ethyl group making ethyl cellulose.

Does ethyl cellulose dissolve in water?

No, ethylcellulose is insoluble in water. The ethyl group that replaces the hydroxyl group in the cellulose monomers to make ethyl cellulose makes ethyl cellulose hydrophobic.

What is the chemical nature of cellulose?

Cellulose is made up of linear chains of D-glucose interlinked by beta(1-4) glycosidic bonds.

The chemical properties of cellulose are determined by the number of monomer units making it.


Georgia Kimbell, Mohammad A. Azad. (2021). 3D printing: Bioinspired and Biomimetic materials for drug delivery.

Retrieved from:

Hadi Seddiqi, Erfan Oliaei, Hengameh Hanarkar ( 27 January 2021). Cellulose and its derivatives: Towards biomedical applications.

Retrieved from:

Klemm, Dieter; Heublein, Brigitte; Fink, Hans-Peter; Bohn, Andreas (2005). “Cellulose: Fascinating Biopolymer and Sustainable Raw Material”. Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 44 (22): 3358–3393. doi:10.1002/anie.200460587

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