What is Cellulose?

What is Cellulose?

What is cellulose?

Cellulose is the basic structural component in plants’ cell walls and the most abundant organic polymer on Earth. Cellulose is frequently used to create paper-based products such as paper towels and toilet paper, as well as textiles, such as viscose, modal, and lyocell. 

How is cellulose sourced?

Cellulose for paper products is mainly derived from wood pulp, while cellulose for textiles is mainly derived from cotton, bamboo, eucalyptus, hemp, and flax. While the cellulose content of cotton fiber is super high at 90%, we don’t call cotton a cellulose fiber. Rather, cotton (like bamboo, eucalyptus, hemp, and flax) can be a source of cellulose fiber. Similarly, wood is not a cellulose fiber – but at 40-50% cellulose, it can be a source of cellulose fiber. Natural cellulose fibers, such as those derived from cotton, bamboo, eucalyptus, hemp, and flax, are easily and frequently mixed with synthetic polymers, such as polyester. 

Is cellulose “good”?

Ah yes, “good”...the non-scientific term we all strive for when shopping more sustainably. Rather than operating in binaries, let’s look at some facts and, as a starting point, compare cellulose and cotton. 

On one hand, cellulose fibers generally require much less land and water to create and have a lower eutrophication impact compared to cotton, with a moderate increase in energy use and global warming potential (depending on where the fiber is made). One study shows that cotton requires almost 22 times more water than lyocell does and about 16 times more water than viscose. On the other hand, however, compared to cotton, lyocell requires 1.2 times more energy to produce, and viscose requires 1.6 times more energy. Land use for cotton is between 1.6 times and 5 times higher than that of the cellulose fibers, and eutrophication caused by cotton production is between 10 and 18 times higher than that of the cellulose fibers. The global warming potential of the fibers depends on where they’re made – while viscose made in Austria and lyocell have a significantly lower global warming potential than cotton, viscose made in Asia has a global warming potential nearly twice as high as that of cotton. 

As a result of these tradeoffs, it’s hard to say whether cellulose is “good”. Next time that know-it-all neighbor backs you into a corner with binary questions, just tell them: its impact is lesser than that of cotton in water, land use, and eutrophication. So, there.

What kind of products are made with cellulose?

Cellulose is found in paper-based products and fiber-based textiles, so you can spot it in paper towels, toilet paper, bedsheets, pillows, and more. 

Are there certifications I should look out for?

While there are no specific certifications for cellulose, it is extracted through the Kraft pulping process, which can be regulated through the Sustainable Forestry Initiative

Still want to learn more? Check out some of our favorite references:

Britannica: Cellulose

Science Daily on Cellulose Textiles

Cellulose Extraction Process

Cellulose Nanofibers Could Reduce Paper’s Environmental Impact

Are Cellulose Nanofibers a Solution for a More Circular Economy of Paper Products?