Each morning as he drives to work at Fort Belvoir, Lt. Col. John J. Nichols is greeted by this roadside scene in southern Fairfax County:

Beer and soda bottles, styrofoam and cardboard cartons, tires and old mufflers, fast-food containers and yards of plastic wrapping, some of it festooning shrubs and trees.

"I think the situation is a disgrace," fumes Nichols, an Army lawyer. "It's terrible. . . It's appalling. I just can't stand it."

But Nichols and thousands of other passing by the same roadsides will have to stand it. In fact, it could get worse.

Pete Todd, who is in charge of highway maintenance in southern Fairfax, says he doesn't have enough money to keep the roadsides clean. Agreeing with every one of Nichols' complaints, he offers a solution: c

"Maybe if we let people get knee deep in beer cans, there will be enough public outrage and something will be done."

While Todd and other Virginia highway department officials say they don't have enough money to pick up all the litter, another state agency is basking in the prospect of a 50 percent increase in its budget, from $994,000 to $1.4 million.It's name: The Virginia Division of Litter Control, and to hear its officials talk you'd believe that highway trash is well under control.

But none of the agency's money goes toward picking up the trash Nichols sees on Backlick Road everyday. The Litter Control Division spends its money on educational and research programs that spread the bad word about littering with a slick, Madison Avenue approach.

There's a comic book, "Follow the Litter," tape cassettes, film strips, an $18,000 research study on the use of "Wet-Ones" by kindergarten children and other instructional materials that are part of a $70 kit the Litter Control Division gives to thousands of public and private grade schools in the state. The "Operation Waste Watch" package -- there is a box for each grade, from kindergarten through seventh -- reflects the division's attitude on where the litter problem is.

"You have to reach the children," says public affairs specialist Richard Groover, "and there is evidence that because of our program, they are receiving behavioral modification."

One of the behavioral modification techniques came from John G. Cope, who developed what he called the "Litterbug Hug" under an $18,000 contract from the Litter Control Division for monitoring the use of paper cloths by children.

Cope, one of two behavioral scientists at Virginia Polytechnic Institute who have the contract, explains:

"Let's say the father and his child are driving to school. Father throws a coffee cup out the window. The child would say, 'Father, you're a litterbug.' But if the father puts a piece of trash in the car's receptacle, the kid can reach over and give him a big hug."

Cope cautions, however: "You don't try this approach with everybody."

But there is little argument over those efforts in Northern Virginia, despite the comic books, film strips and other tactics of the Litter Control Agency.

"I feel things may be getting worse," says Pete Todd.

Glen G. Ehrich, director of Fairfax's Public Works Department, uses virtually the same words: "Things are getting worse."

Throughout the state, "there's not much improvement," says William R. Davidson, assistant maintenance engineer at the highway department's Richmond headquarters.

Not so, says Litter Control spokesman Groover. Since the division was created five years ago, there has been a 66 percent reduction in roadside litter. "Yes, absolutely, there has been improvement."

But the division's boast is challenged by the official who put together the study on which the claim is based. "Had it been me," says Stephen N. Runkle, "I would have moderated the claims."

Runkle, who was with the Transportation Department's Research Council when he devised the study and now is in the real estate business, said: "I don't think it was continued long enough to draw any definite conclusions."