Doubling down on the blight of litter - by Nick Harris, CEO, National Highways


28 March 2024


Doubling down on the blight of litter - by Nick Harris, CEO, National Highways

According to Keep Britain Tidy more than two million pieces of litter are dropped in the UK every day.

Much of it ends up on the strategic road network, the 4,500 miles of motorways and A-roads in England that National Highways operates and maintains.

Whichever way you look at it, litter is a scourge. It’s a visual blight, and a safety issue, blocking drains, causing flooding, and blowing around or obstructing carriageways. We take our duties under the Environmental Protection Act (1990) extremely seriously: every day our teams are collecting litter from the road network. Doing so puts their safety at risk, costs the taxpayer millions of pounds a year, and because we need to close lanes to protect teams, it inconveniences drivers and causes delays.

Then there are the environmental impacts. Litter is blown into watercourses and can end up in our oceans. What’s more, the RSPCA receives thousands of reports a year of animals found injured, trapped or dead from discarded litter. Lured to roadsides by the promise of an easy meal among packaging and food waste, many more animals are killed or injured by passing vehicles.

What’s most frustrating of all is that litter is entirely preventable. If people didn’t drop litter it wouldn’t need to be picked up. But, despite being illegal, and attracting a maximum fine of £500, litter continues to be thrown from vehicles or discarded in laybys across our network.

It’s worth understanding what sort of items our teams are collecting from roadsides and laybys. Litter ranges from sweet wrappers to plastic bottles, fast food containers to drinks cans, cigarette butts to, unbelievably, human waste (disposing of this involves specialist teams and, inevitably, more taxpayers’ money). Many of the 1.3 million vapes discarded in the UK each week end up on our roadsides too.

Discarded food, fruit cores and peels are also litter. In a survey National Highways ran, almost a third of respondents thought that throwing an apple core or leftover food onto the road benefitted wildlife. The reality is that it can cause immense harm.

We think most people in our nation of animal lovers would be shocked if they knew the impact of litter on wildlife – possibly shocked enough to change their behaviour. That’s why it’s the subject of our new anti-littering advertising campaign.

Once we’ve picked litter, it returns quickly, particularly around motorway service area slip roads and at junctions. Undeterred, we’re working with partner organisations to target behaviour change initiatives, ramp up enforcement activities, increase litter picking and improve litter disposal options.

Enforcement is a necessary part of prevention and, on most A-roads, this – and litter collection – is the responsibility of the local authorities. We have run a trial using AI-enabled cameras in conjunction with one local authority to catch and fine litter louts.

We’ve also trialled message signs to reduce motorway littering, and used geofencing to send texts to motorists entering laybys where littering is an issue to prompt them to take their litter home. We have installed higher level bins for HGV drivers at service areas and worked with fast food companies to install larger bins with wider openings.

Alongside our own campaigns, we continue to raise awareness and drive behaviour change by supporting initiatives like the Keep Britain Tidy Great British Spring Clean. This year we’re taking part for the ninth year in a row.

I hope that one day littering will become as much of a cultural no-no here in the UK as it is in countries like Japan. There people take their rubbish home for disposal, and roads and public spaces are litter-free. While this is far from the norm here in the UK, there are reasons to be positive.

The Government is taking action to boost recycling, tackle plastic pollution and reduce litter. This includes launching a deposit return scheme for drinks containers. The ban on disposable vapes can only be a good thing too – ensuring that this particular litter bugbear is kept off our roadsides for good.