Roadside Litter, Environmental Protection and Road Safety

Roadside Litter, Environmental Protection and Road SafetyIntroduction

South Africa is a beautiful country and one of the best places for a road trip. Sadly, too many road users are guilty of spoiling its beauty when they litter from their vehicles.

Litter does not only reflect badly on our community but comes at a terrible cost with a far-reaching impact environmentally, economically or socially. It presents a very real danger to drivers, workers, cyclists and other road users and animals.

With increased car usage and our hectic modern lifestyles, we find more and more people consuming food and drink ‘on the go’ and in transit. This Includes a sandwich, crisps or a snack bar and a bottle to drink as many people’s lunch.

They are consumed in transit as we travel from one place to another for work or when transporting the kids to and from school. [Which could be a dangerous driver distraction as well]

It is important to recognise that roadside litter is an avoidable problem and education, enforcement, engagement and policy and legislation all have a role to play.

Research by the Transportation Research Board in the US stated that: ‘The national effort to reduce the roadside litter problem is at present largely fragmented and under researched’, there is a ‘…lack of reliable data on the roadside litter problem’ and that ‘Publicising the impacts of roadside litter likely would bring greater resources to bear on the roadside litter problem.’

In this section, we would like to take a closer look at the nature and impact of this threat to our health and safety.

Roadside Litter is a Global Hazard

Roadside littering is not unique to South Africa. This unacceptable habit can be found in many other countries:

  • Highways England revealed more than 150,000 sacks of litter are collected by its contractors every year - equal to 411 bags every day. [Highways England manages around 225 miles of motorway in the East Midlands].
  • A 2014 report found that litter on England’s motorways alone costs ‘at least £6 million a year to collect and could fill an Olympic sized swimming pool four times over.
  • The State of West Virginia spends more than $1 million annually to remove litter from state highways.
  • The costs of litter collection to local authorities and Welsh Government exceed £3million per year in collection alone.

In South Africa, the Toll concessionaire N3TC [Managing the N3 Toll road between Johannesburg and Pietermaritzburg] collects and sorts all waste and recycles as much as possible. Around 4700 bags of litter are collected every month which does not include items that cannot be bagged such as metal, rubber, vehicle parts and dropped loads.

What is Litter?

What is Litter?

Litter can be defined as consisting of waste products that have been disposed improperly, without consent, at an inappropriate location. Roadside litter is taken to mean any unwanted items which are disposed of which ends up on and next to our roadsides. More commonly, this comes from vehicles but it may come from any road user.

  • Cigarette butts are the most littered item in the world and are toxic to the environment.
  • Often found during litter clean-ups are fast-food wrappers/ packaging.
  • Plastic and paper bags.
  • Aluminium beer cans and soda cans.
  • Takeaway cups.
  • Soiled nappies
  • Large and sometimes dangerous objects such as tyres are also removed daily as part of normal maintenance operations.

Where does roadside litter come from?

Where does roadside litter come from?

Litter is collected everywhere along our roads but also most often at specific locations where it is usually concentrated such as at interchanges. Vehicles are often parked there illegally and their drivers leave their trash behind.

Some sources of litter are:

  • motorists
  • pedestrians
  • cyclists
  • uncovered trucks
  • improperly contained household garbage
  • improper commercial bins
  • improperly contained construction litter
  • litter and road obstructions from community protests

What are the Risks presented by Roadside Litter?

What are the Risks presented by Roadside Litter?

Littering is not a “victimless crime”. It also does not only degrade our road environment but is a threat to those using our roads and living alongside our roads. The hazards presented by this thoughtless conduct include:

  • Road crashes when drivers swerve to avoid debris.
  • Collisions caused by items in the road or items that land on windscreens.
  • Flat tyres from punctures caused by sharp items thrown from vehicles.
  • Vehicle and windscreen damage from debris/ litter left on the roads.
  • Road workers putting their lives at risk when picking up litter from the roadside.
  • Collisions with animals attracted to the road by litter.
  • Flood risks to drivers and pedestrians when litter blocks drains along our roads.
  • Risks to grass cutters and their equipment from the litter at the side of the road. [Including risk to bee attacks near litter next to the road]

Environmental Threat of Roadside Litter

  • Litter is detrimental to our environment as well as the economy and well-being of communities along the route.
  • Not many are aware that a plastic bottle takes up to 450 years to biodegrade.
  • Litter takes a toll on quality of life, natural habitats, waterways, the general welfare of people.
  • It is a threat to the health of wildlife such as animals, birds and fish.
  • Deadly veld and forest fires may start from cigarettes and other flammable materials thrown from vehicles.

Roadkill and Litter

Roadkill and Litter

We raised a few questions with Wendy Collinson from the Endangered Wildlife Trust to gain insights on the relationship between Litter and Roadkill.

Are you aware of any studies on the impact of littering along our roads on animal life?

There are no studies as such (i.e. research with statistical evidence), but a lot of guideline documents across the world state to not throw litter out the window, etc. We also share these in our media releases. My assumption is that people are aware of it, as they’ve witnessed animals feeding on thrown scraps, but there is no literature on this.

Which are the most hazardous materials to our animals?

Depends on how you look at it … everything is hazardous. Anything that is littered is going to create a problem, as an animal will naturally come and feed on the litter, and possibly become a roadkill. This may be food scraps or packaging that contains remains of food. At least with food, it is easily digested (unless it is something that is poisonous to the animal, of course … but it’s possible the packaging that is big (unrecognised) problem. You’ve only got to look at all the horrific images on social media which show animals suffocating on plastic that has been discarded, to see that plastic, more so than food scraps, is the bigger polluter.

Is it fair to say that animals may become road kill because of people littering?

100% … it’s natural scavenging behaviour. Why miss out on a free meal?

Which animals are most likely to be attracted to the roadside by litter?

I would say all … they are opportunistic. Birds will peck at apple cores, small mammals will eat anything etc, etc. And then you’ll get the scavengers coming in to feed on these smaller animals that end up as roadkill … so Jackal, birds of prey etc.

Do you believe more awareness should be created about why we should NOT litter? 

Without question …. Particularly around the plastic packaging side of things. One always forgets the spread of alien and invasive plants and we just focus on the impact on fauna. What about seeded-fruits (from other countries), that get thrown out of car windows. Yes, they will decompose quickly and are unlikely to take root… but it’s possible.

Roadside Litter an Unnecessary Expense on the Taxpayer

  • Cleaning motorways are expensive and time-consuming necessitating a battle that starts afresh every day.
  • Collectors must walk along the route daily picking up visible litter.
  • Taxpayer money must pay for the manpower needed to clean litter from the roads.
  • It reduces opportunities for tourism and economic development
  • According to Highways England, ‘it can cost £40 per bag of litter, which is roughly what it costs to repair a pothole!

How can we combat littering?

How can we combat littering?

Initiatives to reduce littering are mostly focused on 2 strategies. These are:

a) Preventative strategies (e.g. signs, community involvement, design)

b) Consequence strategies – rewards and penalties. These have been found to both generally effective in reducing littering.

It should be recognised that witnessing, identifying and proving the offence of litter from vehicles, particularly when they are moving, is difficult. It is also seldom easy to burden already very busy traffic and police officials with the duty to bring these those who litter to justice.

  • A comprehensive litter control programme should not only focus on actual cleanup efforts but also do ongoing community and environmental education.
  • Road users must be encouraged to dispose of their litter properly and improve the experience of all drivers who use our roads.
  • Education is key to stop littering,” says Con Roux from N3TC in South Africa. “We believe a clean road is a safe road, fundamental to the creation of a law-abiding culture.”
  • The English Highways Agency (HA) (now known as Highways England) has carried out regular anti-litter campaigns. For example, the Highways Agency litter behaviour change marketing campaigns had the target message in August 2011 of ‘bag it and bin it’ and ‘bin your litter other people do’. In February 2012, they used ‘help stop litter, bin it’ slogans.
  • The Adopt-a-Highway (AAH) programme started in Texas in 1985. It involves volunteers adopting a 2-mile stretch of highway for a minimum of 2 years, agreeing to clean up the area at least 4 times a year.

According to a national survey of Adopt a Highway schemes in 1999:

  •  962,502 volunteers are picking up litter in 48 states
  •  The annual cost of picking up roadside litter totalled $106,833,568 for the 33 states reporting.
  •  27 states have an annual Trash-off event (a national clean-up day)
  •  43 states allow volunteers to recycle
  •  26 states allow inmate volunteers
  •  88,919 AAH groups are in the United States.
  •  206,564 highway miles have been adopted in the United States.

In South Africa, many companies and schools dedicate specific worthy initiatives such as 67 Minutes for Madiba to cleaning their environment and collecting litter from the roadside.



It is believed that a culture of anti-littering goes hand in hand with the culture of road safety. When someone litters, they litter their own roads, their own community, their own paths. The same can be said of irresponsible and unsafe driving behaviours where people feel disconnected in their cars and disconnected from the community causing a threat to their fellow road user.

By increasing the love for our neighbourhood, community and people we might not only reduce litter but also improve our attitude towards safety on the road!

Also view:

Eating behind the Steering Wheel and Distracted Driving

Healthy Eating, Driver Fitness and Safer Driving

Nutrition and Road Safety

Energy Drinks, Driver Alertness/ Tiredness and Safe Driving