The search for a source of fuels and chemicals that is both abundant and renewable has become of paramount importance. The polysaccharide cellulose meets both criteria, and methods have been developed for its transformation into the platform chemical 5-(hydroxymethyl)furfural (HMF). These methods employ harsh reaction conditions or toxic heavy metal catalysts, deterring large-scale implementation. Here, we describe a low-temperature, one-pot route that uses ortho-carboxyl-substituted phenylboronic acids as organocatalysts in conjunction with hydrated magnesium chloride and mineral acids to convert cellulose and cellulose-rich municipal waste to HMF in yields comparable to processes that use toxic heavy metal catalysts. Isotopic labeling studies indicate that the key aldose-to-ketose transformation occurs via an enediol intermediate. The route, which also allows for facile catalyst recovery and recycling, provides a green prototype for cellulose conversion.