Silver nanoparticles have antibacterial properties, but their use has been a cause for concern because they persist in the environment. Here, we show that lignin nanoparticles infused with silver ions and coated with a cationic polyelectrolyte layer form a biodegradable and green alternative to silver nanoparticles. The polyelectrolyte layer promotes the adhesion of the particles to bacterial cell membranes and, together with silver ions, can kill a broad spectrum of bacteria, including Escherichia coli, Pseudomonas aeruginosa and quaternary-amine-resistant Ralstonia sp. Ion depletion studies have shown that the bioactivity of these nanoparticles is time-limited because of the desorption of silver ions. High-throughput bioactivity screening did not reveal increased toxicity of the particles when compared to an equivalent mass of metallic silver nanoparticles or silver nitrate solution. Our results demonstrate that the application of green chemistry principles may allow the synthesis of nanoparticles with biodegradable cores that have higher antimicrobial activity and smaller environmental impact than metallic silver nanoparticles.