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Resource recovery from sanitation to enhance ecosystem services


Sanitation is often viewed as an unmentionable social obligation. Efficiently delivering this public good may involve use of ecosystem services, such as pollutant assimilation in wetlands, yet sanitation need not only consume: recovered resources (nutrients, organic matter and water) may enhance multiple ecosystem services, thereby expanding the value of sanitation. However, potential linkages between sanitation and ecosystem services have received limited attention. Bridging these fields will reveal opportunities to support sustainability goals, particularly in settings with extensive ecological assets but limited economic means. Here we develop a conceptual framework defining pathways through which recoverable resources can enhance ecosystem services and shed light on the viability of exploring synergistic interactions between engineered and natural systems. We find underexplored potential, particularly relating to the contribution resource recovery could make to regional ecosystems in countries across the globe. Such integrative work is needed to advance knowledge of sanitation–ecosystem linkages and stimulate policy efforts to enhance sustainable development and resource cycles.

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Fig. 1: Literature review of the intersection between sanitation/resource recovery and ecosystem services.
Fig. 2: Examples of service pathways through which recoverable resources and ecosystem services can generate direct societal value.
Fig. 3: Conceptual maps of potential links between resources from sanitation and ecosystem services.
Fig. 4: Co-location of recoverable resources from sanitation and land-cover types.

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Data availability

All data supporting this study’s findings are available in the Supplementary Information or from the corresponding author upon request.


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The authors would like to acknowledge the Illinois Distinguished Fellowship and Dissertation Completion Fellowship at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for funding support for J.T.T., as well as support from the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE) at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for D.C.M. and J.S.G.

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Authors and Affiliations



J.T.T., D.C.M and J.S.G. conceived of the research. J.T.T. collected data and performed analyses. J.T.T., D.C.M. and J.S.G. interpreted results and wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Jeremy S. Guest.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Results, Methods, Figs. 1,2, Tables and refs. 1–33.

Supplementary Table 1

Summary of publications at the intersection of sanitation/resource recovery and ecosystem services literature

Supplementary Table 4

Co-location of recoverable resources with dominant land-cover types across 171 countries and territories

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Trimmer, J.T., Miller, D.C. & Guest, J.S. Resource recovery from sanitation to enhance ecosystem services. Nat Sustain 2, 681–690 (2019).

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