Towards an integrated decision-support system for sustainable organic waste management (optim-O)

The development of the proposed decision-support system requires the undertaking of interdisciplinary research brought about by a diverse team. It is in this context that researchers from the chemical engineering department and the geomatics sciences department at Laval University, in Quebec, Canada, have developed a nutrient stakeholder platform (NutriPlatform-QC), i.e. a regrouping of actors from research institutions, industry, governmental authorities, municipalities, and agricultural organizations, among others, that are active in the field of organic waste management. Since 2017, regular meetings have been organized with the members of the platform in order to frame the objectives and methodology of such interdisciplinary research, as well as to adapt the scope of the research to the stakeholder needs.

As such, the authors initiated the design and development of a decision-support software tool that allows setting up optimal organic waste value chains for the province of Quebec, with Primodal Inc. and Chamard Environmental Strategies as industrial partners. The system, named optim-O (, applies a holistic modelling approach that focuses on minimization of costs and greenhouse gas emissions throughout the entire value chain. The scope (Fig. 1) includes the generation and collection of organic waste across the province (including urban, suburban, peri-urban and rural areas), the treatment of the waste through biomethanation, composting, and/or nutrient recovery, and the distribution of the end-products such as biogas, digestate, compost, and recovered mineral fertilizers. All of these items are geolocated in order to account for transport distances and potential traffic nuisance. Regulatory and market restrictions for product distribution are also taken into account.

Fig. 1: Scope and four use cases of the optim-O decision-support system.

Scope and use cases.

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The software tool integrates three key components: (1) a multidimensional spatiotemporal database system (including georeferenced and non-georeferenced data), (2) a model-based decision module (for simulation and optimization) and (3) a user-friendly interface (to facilitate knowledge transfer and interpretation). Table 1 provides an overview of the data included in the system. Generally speaking, georeferenced data includes data that is location-specific, such as population, commerce, services and industry (position and size), road networks, hydrographic networks, existing infrastructure (wastewater treatment plants, biogas and composting facilities), agricultural parcels (location, size, crop, nutrient saturation index) and associated regulatory and market constraints (fertilizer application limitations). Non-georeferenced data includes costs and other factors used for economic assessments, greenhouse gas emission factors, technical process-related factors (used for the mathematical process models), and social factors (odour emissions, population density, the latter also being part of the georeferenced data). Default values are provided for the non-georeferenced data, but the user can modify these if case-specific data would be available. A prototype of the developed tool is currently being validated using two major biomethanation plants in Quebec. The tool also has the flexibility for extension with other resource recovery processes.

Table 1 Georeferenced and non-georeferenced data included in the optim-O decision-support software tool.
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Figure 1 presents the four use cases for which the tool can be used. It concerns decision problems related to (1) the collection of organic waste, (2) the treatment process operation, (3) the end-product distribution and (4) the integration of the three previous use cases as one global optimization problem. In each case, the tool can be used to either simulate and evaluate various scenarios defined by the user, or to solve the optimization problem taking into account optimization criteria defined by the user, as described in the examples below.

In the first use case, i.e. the collection of organic waste, the tool allows for the estimation of organic waste generation based on data from households, services, businesses and industries, with associated organic matter generation rates for each, either based on the number of members in a household, employees or clients, as well as the type of service, business or industry. As presented in Table 1, all of this information is geolocated, allowing users to locate sources of organic waste across a territory, as presented in Fig. 2. From here, using the treatment plant location and road networks, various waste collection routes can be simulated. The user can also select specific modelling objectives, for example: maximising organic waste collection, evaluating the potential to collect a certain waste type, assessing long-distance travel (for example, through transfer stations), as well as associated optimization objectives, for example, reducing GHG emissions, reducing costs or reducing both at the same time.

Fig. 2: Geolocated organic waste generation throughout the southern area of the province of Quebec, as estimated by the decision-support system.

Geolocated organic waste generation Southern Quebec.

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In the second use case, i.e. treatment process operation, the system can evaluate processing outcomes through a mathematical model library developed for this tool. It includes models for anaerobic digestion, composting and processes to recover nutrients as mineral fertilizers from digestate, and allows easy extension with other process models in the future. The models are numerically simple, requiring basic data inputs (e.g., key physico-chemical waste characteristics), and are coded directly in the database. By selecting this approach, a balance was sought between model complexity and simulation times, with the aim to minimize computational efforts, while maximizing usability. Using the models, one can aim at evaluating the impact of varying substrates on the process performance, seeking to optimize certain parameters (e.g., minimizing GHG emissions, maximizing product quality or minimizing process duration/size). Moreover, different treatment process combinations can be evaluated and compared, for example the implementation of anaerobic digestion as sole technology vs the implementation of anaerobic digestion with nitrogen recovery from the liquid fraction of digestate and composting of the solid fraction of digestate.

In the third use case, users can simulate and optimize locations for end-product distribution. In this case, an estimation of quantity and quality factors for the end-products (biogas, digestate, compost, recovered mineral fertilizers), either provided as model outputs or entered by the user, are considered as data inputs. From here, agricultural lands can be evaluated regarding their receptivity for the product. This receptivity is based on the quality of the product, size of the plot, the phosphorus saturation status of the soil, the nitrogen pollution status of the surrounding water bodies and the nitrogen requirements for crop production, which all determine how much product can be accepted on the land under study. Distribution networks can then be set up and optimized using spatial analysis, identifying the nearest receptive lands.

Finally, a fourth use case concerns the integrated assessment of the above three use cases. Indeed, the outputs of one module can serve as the inputs to another module. As such, the outputs of the waste collection module can be used as inputs to the treatment process module, providing a certain quantity and quality of substrate(s). The process models can then be run to determine the optimal treatment process chain, as well as quantity and quality factors for the end-products. The latter can then be used to search for an optimal agricultural site for end-product distribution. This process can be undertaken iteratively by the system seeking to meet desired criteria and/or propose a few scenarios of interest to decision makers. The fourth use case can also be applied to select the optimal position of a new treatment plant, taking into account the organic waste availability and the access to agricultural land for end-product distribution. Moreover, such integrated approach can allow users to understand the impact of changing waste collection strategies on existing treatment process chains, or to evaluate how a change in process conditions can affect end-product distribution.

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