Roadside Litter: What do you think of it so far? Rubbish!

By @1TheDrivingSeat



We Brits love a quiz. What links ’six point eight million’, ‘three hundred and sixty five’, ‘forty’, ‘two hundred thousand’, ‘eighty three’ and ‘five hundred and fifty’?

In isolation, those numbers seem random and meaningless. Collectively, they represent what must surely be acknowledged as an environmental disaster. Their link? The social cancer that is roadside litter.

According to Highways England, the cost of removing litter from the verges of our motorways and major roads is almost £7m every year, during which more than 200,000 bags of rubbish will be collected, equating to around 83 bags per mile, or 550 bags a day.

Alarmingly, when questioned, two in five drivers (yes, that’s forty percent or almost half of us!) admitted to throwing litter from their vehicle. A common item collected from English roadsides is urine-filled water bottles.

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From April 2018, the maximum on-the-spot fine local authorities can issue for dropping litter nearly doubled from £80 to £150 and, for the first time, local councils were able to apply these penalties to vehicle owners if proven that the rubbish was thrown from their car, van or lorry, even if by a passenger.

But, one year on and little inroads have been made in reducing roadside litter volumes. Fines intended to hit drivers in their pockets are not as effective as the incentives to put money into their pockets.

A trial scheme that is having an impact is one that rewards drivers for placing rubbish in special bins on motorway service stations to help reduce roadside litter.

Motorway services at Maidstone, Kent, feature Britain’s first ever recycling reward bins where drivers are given a five-pence voucher for every empty plastic bottle or coffee cup they insert.

The recycling rewards trial follows a previous trial by Highways England that encouraged motorists to throw litter into special funnels with wide openings at 25 service stations across the North West.

A ten-week trial of the funnel bins at Winchester services on the southern M3 showed a 25 per cent reduction in roadside littering last year, reports Highways England.

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However, campaign group ‘Clean Up Britain’ founder John Read said: "This appears like a low-cost gimmick to try and pretend that Highways England is doing something about the massive problem of litter on motorways. Highways England just needs to do its job properly and keep the entire motorway network clear of litter, not just 25 so-called 'hotspots'. The reality is that virtually the entire network is a litter hotspot."

A Highways England spokesperson responded: “Clearing litter from busy roads such as motorways is a huge challenge costing time and money which could be better spent on other priorities. Every year we remove about 200,000 sacks of litter from across our motorways, at the cost of around £40 a sack – the equivalent of fixing a pothole.

“Roadside rubbish is unsightly as well as a risk to wildlife and the environment, so we strongly urge road users to please take their litter home.”

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Part of the explanation for this rising tide of roadside rubbish is both behavioural and generational. Those who have grown up in a disposable society have a tendency to…well, dispose. The sight of an army of litter pickers collecting abandoned tents, clothes and camping equipment after festivals speaks volumes, as do skips of still-functioning equipment left behind by students after term’s end.

The British, especially the younger generation, are also Europe’s largest consumers of food and drink on the move and food and drink containers are the most numerous objects in any roadside litter-pick.

But the problem of litter is also structural, which is why campaigns to change behaviour are largely flawed. Many of the objects disposed of at the roadside are made from non-biodegradable, one-use materials. And everything is wrapped and wrapped again, swathed in unnecessary packaging.

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In times of austerity it’s not really surprising that agencies eschew responsibilities. Litter clearing is a huge strain on taxes. In 2017 an estimated £1bn was spent nationally.

So, what is the answer to roadside rubbish? Would additional funding for more national campaigns help? What about driver-education at the attainment of one’s driving licence? Or would council funding for localised micro-campaigns by concerned citizens be of help?

I don’t have the answers, but I think we can all agree that the current state of our national roadside verges is in desperate need of a solution…and one that lasts.