Chicago: Researchers at the University of Illinois (UI) see sanitation as a valuable facet of global ecosystems and an overlooked source of nutrients, organic material and water, according to a study posted on UI's website on Monday. The researchers found that between 2000 and 2018, there were over 56,000 published studies that discussed sanitation and resource recovery and approximately 36,000 on ecosystem services; of these, 155 discussed the linkages between the two fields, the Xinhua news agency reported.
UI researchers identified six key resource recovery and sanitation topics covered in the published studies: wastewater treatment, wastewater reuse, natural or constructed wetlands, nutrient and carbon recovery, storm water reuse and regulation, and energy recovery.
"We next identified the pathways in which the recovered resources and ecosystem services may lead to something of direct societal value," said lead author John Trimmer, a civil and environmental engineering graduate student. "For example, nutrients recovered from a wastewater facility can be applied to farmland to increase food production."
The study describes 17 potential ecosystem services made available from the nutrients, water and organic material recovered from sanitation systems serving human populations. These include water purification, nutrient cycling, food provisioning and climate regulation.
"Environmental issues like biodiversity loss and climate change are increasingly prominent in the public eye and people now want to know what we, as a society, are going to do about them," said Daniel Miller, natural resources and environmental sciences professor and study co-author.
"Our research points to the unexplored aspect of sanitation and how it might contribute to addressing such problems. We typically think of sanitation as degrading the environment, but we find ways it could actually help improve it while bringing benefits for people."
Human beings derive benefits from the ecosystems around them -- services that often go undervalued in traditional economic systems, the researchers said. These ecosystem benefits include things like forests providing wood as a building material and natural hydrological processes that improve water quality.
The research has been published in the journal Nature Sustainability.