Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

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.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

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.

Data availability

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


  1. 1.

    Sustainable Development Goal 6 Synthesis Report 2018 on Water and Sanitation (United Nations, 2018).

  2. 2.

    Verstraete, W., Van de Caveye, P. & Diamantis, V. Maximum use of resources present in domestic “used water”. Bioresour. Technol. 100, 5537–5545 (2009).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3.

    Trimmer, J. T., Cusick, R. D. & Guest, J. S. Amplifying progress toward multiple development goals through resource recovery from sanitation. Environ. Sci. Technol. 51, 10765–10776 (2017).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4.

    Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Synthesis (Island, 2005).

  5. 5.

    Wood, S. L. R. et al. Distilling the role of ecosystem services in the Sustainable Development Goals. Ecosyst. Serv. 29, 70–82 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6.

    Timko, J. et al. A policy nexus approach to forests and the SDGs: tradeoffs and synergies. Curr. Opin. Environ. Sustain. 34, 7–12 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7.

    Biodiversity and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (Convention on Biological Diversity, 2016).

  8. 8.

    Wang, X. et al. Evolving wastewater infrastructure paradigm to enhance harmony with nature. Sci. Adv. 4, eaaq0210 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9.

    Gopalakrishnan, V., Grubb, G. F. & Bakshi, B. R. Biosolids management with net-zero CO2 emissions: a techno-ecological synergy design. Clean Technol. Environ. Policy 19, 2099–2111 (2017).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    Díaz, S. et al. Assessing nature’s contributions to people. Science 359, 270–272 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11.

    Garcia, X. et al. Placing ecosystem services at the heart of urban water systems management. Sci. Total Environ. 563–564, 1078–1085 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12.

    Rockström, J. et al. A safe operating space for humanity. Nature 461, 472–475 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13.

    Mihelcic, J. R., Fry, L. M. & Shaw, R. Global potential of phosphorus recovery from human urine and feces. Chemosphere 84, 832–839 (2011).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    Salzman, J., Bennett, G., Carroll, N., Goldstein, A. & Jenkins, M. The global status and trends of payments for ecosystem services. Nat. Sustain. 1, 136–144 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15.

    Wallace, K. J. Classification of ecosystem services: problems and solutions. Biol. Conserv. 139, 235–246 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16.

    Fisher, B., Turner, R. K. & Morling, P. Defining and classifying ecosystem services for decision making. Ecol. Econ. 68, 643–653 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17.

    Bennett, E. M., Peterson, G. D. & Gordon, L. J. Understanding relationships among multiple ecosystem services. Ecol. Lett. 12, 1394–1404 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18.

    Mehta, C. M., Khunjar, W. O., Nguyen, V., Tait, S. & Batstone, D. J. Technologies to recover nutrients from waste streams: a critical review. Crit. Rev. Environ. Sci. Technol. 45, 385–427 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19.

    Orner, K. D. & Mihelcic, J. R. A review of sanitation technologies to achieve multiple sustainable development goals that promote resource recovery. Environ. Sci. Water Res. Technol. 4, 16–32 (2018).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20.

    Etter, B., Tilley, E., Khadka, R. & Udert, K. M. Low-cost struvite production using source-separated urine in Nepal. Water Res. 45, 852–862 (2011).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21.

    Tarpeh, W. A., Barazesh, J. M., Cath, T. Y. & Nelson, K. L. Electrochemical stripping to recover nitrogen from source-separated urine. Environ. Sci. Technol. 52, 1453–1460 (2018).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22.

    Trimmer, J. T. & Guest, J. S. Recirculation of human-derived nutrients from cities to agriculture across six continents. Nat. Sustain. 1, 427–435 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23.

    Tan, Z. X., Lal, R. & Wiebe, K. D. Global soil nutrient depletion and yield reduction. J. Sustain. Agric. 26, 123–146 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24.

    Lal, R. Soil carbon sequestration impacts on global climate change and food security. Science 304, 1623–1627 (2004).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25.

    Cordell, D., Drangert, J.-O. & White, S. The story of phosphorus: global food security and food for thought. Glob. Environ. Change 19, 292–305 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26.

    Fowler, D. et al. The global nitrogen cycle in the twenty-first century. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 368, 20130164 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27.

    Smith, V. H., Tilman, G. D. & Nekola, J. C. Eutrophication: impacts of excess nutrient inputs on freshwater, marine, and terrestrial ecosystems. Environ. Pollut. 100, 179–196 (1999).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28.

    Logan, B. E. & Rabaey, K. Conversion of wastes into bioelectricity and chemicals by using microbial electrochemical technologies. Science 337, 686–690 (2012).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29.

    Sanderman, J., Hengl, T. & Fiske, G. J. Soil carbon debt of 12,000 years of human land use. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 114, 9575–9580 (2017).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 30.

    Lal, R. Soil carbon sequestration impacts on global climate change and food security. Science 304, 1623–1627 (2004).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  31. 31.

    Fry, L. M., Mihelcic, J. R. & Watkins, D. W. Water and nonwater-related challenges of achieving global sanitation coverage. Environ. Sci. Technol. 42, 4298–4304 (2008).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  32. 32.

    Larsen, T. A., Hoffmann, S., Lüthi, C., Truffer, B. & Maurer, M. Emerging solutions to the water challenges of an urbanizing world. Science 352, 928–933 (2016).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  33. 33.

    Mueller, N. D. et al. Closing yield gaps through nutrient and water management. Nature 490, 254–257 (2012).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  34. 34.

    Bayite-Kasule, S. Inorganic Fertilizer in Uganda: Knowledge Gaps, Profitability, Subsidy, and Implications of a National Policy (International Food Policy Research Institute, 2009).

  35. 35.

    Pitt, J. et al. It takes more than water: restoring the Colorado River Delta. Ecol. Eng. 106, 629–632 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Zanuzzi, A., Arocena, J. M., van Mourik, J. M. & Faz Cano, A. Amendments with organic and industrial wastes stimulate soil formation in mine tailings as revealed by micromorphology. Geoderma 154, 69–75 (2009).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  37. 37.

    Lehmann, J. & Kleber, M. The contentious nature of soil organic matter. Nature 528, 60–68 (2015).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  38. 38.

    Hagen, B., Pijawka, D., Prakash, M. & Sharma, S. Longitudinal analysis of ecosystem services’ socioeconomic benefits: wastewater treatment projects in a desert city. Ecosyst. Serv. 23, 209–217 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. 39.

    Bischel, H. N. et al. Renewing urban streams with recycled water for streamflow augmentation: hydrologic, water quality, and ecosystem services management. Environ. Eng. Sci. 30, 455–479 (2013).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  40. 40.

    Dlamini, S. N., Franke, J. & Vounatsou, P. Assessing the relationship between environmental factors and malaria vector breeding sites in Swaziland using multi-scale remotely sensed data. Geospatial Health 10, 302 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. 41.

    Lu, L. et al. Wastewater treatment for carbon capture and utilization. Nat. Sustain. 1, 750–758 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. 42.

    Vörösmarty, C. J., Green, P., Salisbury, J. & Lammers, R. B. Global water resources: vulnerability from climate change and population growth. Science 289, 284–288 (2000).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. 43.

    McCarty, P. L., Bae, J. & Kim, J. Domestic wastewater treatment as a net energy producer–Can this be achieved? Environ. Sci. Technol. 45, 7100–7106 (2011).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  44. 44.

    Godfray, H. C. J. et al. Food Security: the challenge of feeding 9 billion people. Science 327, 812–818 (2010).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  45. 45.

    Cardinale, B. J. et al. Biodiversity loss and its impact on humanity. Nature 486, 59–67 (2012).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  46. 46.

    Latham, J., Cumani, R., Rosati, I. & Bloise, M. Global Land Cover SHARE (GLC-SHARE) Database Beta-Release Version 1.0 (2014).

  47. 47.

    Sato, T., Qadir, M., Yamamoto, S., Endo, T. & Zahoor, A. Global, regional, and country level need for data on wastewater generation, treatment, and use. Agric. Water Manag. 130, 1–13 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. 48.

    DataBank (World Bank Group, 24 February 2018);

  49. 49.

    World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision (United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2015).

  50. 50.

    Uddin, S. M. N., Muhandiki, V. S., Fukuda, J., Nakamura, M. & Sakai, A. Ecological sanitation in low income countries: assessment of social acceptance and scope of scaling up. In Proc. 35th WEDC International Conference (ed. Shaw, R. J.) 1–8 (WEDC, 2011).

  51. 51.

    Hein, L., Miller, D. C. & de Groot, R. Payments for ecosystem services and the financing of global biodiversity conservation. Curr. Opin. Environ. Sustain. 5, 87–93 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. 52.

    Clark, R., Reed, J. & Sunderland, T. Bridging funding gaps for climate and sustainable development: pitfalls, progress and potential of private finance. Land Use Policy 71, 335–346 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. 53.

    Degryse, F., Baird, R., da Silva, R. C. & McLaughlin, M. J. Dissolution rate and agronomic effectiveness of struvite fertilizers – effect of soil pH, granulation and base excess. Plant Soil 410, 139–152 (2017).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  54. 54.

    Ferraro, P. J. & Kiss, A. Direct payments to conserve biodiversity. Science 298, 1718–1719 (2002).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  55. 55.

    Pagiola, S. Payments for environmental services in Costa Rica. Ecol. Econ. 65, 712–724 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  56. 56.

    Jack, B. K., Leimona, B. & Ferraro, P. J. A Revealed preference approach to estimating supply curves for ecosystem services: use of auctions to set payments for soil erosion control in Indonesia. Conserv. Biol. 23, 359–367 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  57. 57.

    Proposals for a Comprehensive and Participatory Process for the Preparation of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (CBD, 2018).

  58. 58.

    Benayas, J. M. R., Newton, A. C., Diaz, A. & Bullock, J. M. Enhancement of biodiversity and ecosystem services by ecological restoration: a meta-analysis. Science 325, 1121–1124 (2009).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  59. 59.

    Starkl, M., Brunner, N., López, E. & Martínez-Ruiz, J. L. A planning-oriented sustainability assessment framework for peri-urban water management in developing countries. Water Res. 47, 7175–7183 (2013).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  60. 60.

    Daw, T. M. et al. Evaluating taboo trade-offs in ecosystems services and human well-being. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 112, 6949–6954 (2015).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  61. 61.

    Gridded Population of the World Version 3 (GPWv3): National Administrative Boundaries (CIESIN, Columbia University, CIAT, 2005).

  62. 62.

    Gridded Population of the World Version 4 (GPWv4): National Identifier Grid (CIESIN, Columbia University, 2016).

Download references


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.

Author information




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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jeremy S. Guest.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

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

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

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

Download citation

Further reading


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing