One place where 2 cents goes a very long way

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Kevin can't read. But he can distinguish some 250 varieties of soda bottles and beer cans. And he can count to 24 - the number of empties in a case. And that's just the skill this bearded young man in jeans and a flowered shirt needed to land his first ''job'' at the Coastal Redemption Center here - part of the Coastal Workshop, a private, nonprofit facility for handicapped adults.

With his seven co-workers, Kevin sorts some 30,000 empties a week at the center's barnlike corrugated-iron building. Set up under a grant from the Maine Bureau of Mental Retardation, the center refunds to its customers (who bring in empties by the sack) the nickel-and-dime deposits required under the state's 1978 bottle bill. Then, in turn, it ''sells'' the boxed and bundled empties back to the beverage distributors - for the amount of the deposit plus a 2-cent handling fee for each empty.

It's that 2 cents, says Workshop executive director James W. McBrian Jr., which adds up to some $20,000 a year in net income - enough to pay modest wages to Kevin and others like him.

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And it's that 2 cents that allows so apt a marriage between commercial enterprise and nonprofit initiative - providing a useful business service and giving basic jobs to people who value them enormously.

That 2 cents, in fact, has helped make an asset of two things society used to throw away: its beverage containers, and the skills of those it branded ''retarded.''

It's all possible, of course, because of bottle bills. Originally sparked by environmentalists, who worried that the nation's annual production of more than 100 billion throwaway containers was turning the highways into linear garbage dumps, such laws are now on the books in eight states: Oregon, Iowa, Michigan, Delaware, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, and (as of Sept. 12) New York. They are not yet assured of victory in the 42 others: They lost this year in California, Arizona, Colorado, and Washington. But Sandra Nelson of Environmental Action, a Washington, D.C., group lobbying against throwaways, counts more than a dozen states where they will shortly be put to a vote.

Where does the resistance arise? From bottlers and retail shopkeepers, who complain that such laws, in addition to adding the handling fee to the customer's cost, adds sorting, storage, and record-keeping expenses.

Enter the redemption center. Whereas some grocers accept returnables grudgingly, these centers (whether commercial or nonprofit) welcome them. Combined with a sense of contributing to a good cause, that attitude - at least in Camden - is infectious. ''Give me the bills and keep the change,'' some customers say. Others slip out without waiting to be paid.

''We have never really requested donations,'' says Mr. McBrian, ''because we don't want to make people feel guilty about getting their refunds.'' More important, he says, is that ''we're running a business, and our clients (the handicapped adults) are working and learning.'' The goal: to land even one ''client'' in a competitive job outside the center. That's why the center's program director, Nancy P. Seibel, says that ''what I stress most is work habits'': dressing properly, being on time, getting along with others, working under a boss.

So far, the handicapped-redemption-center idea is growing slowly. Iowa has about 30; Michigan has one; and Connecticut, several. One opened recently in Bangor, Maine; another started up in Bradford, Vt., on Sept. 1. But several states have yet to seize upon the potential for linking the skills of the handicapped with the bottle bill's opportunities.

That's a pity. Bottles and cans, after all, are only part of what Environmental Action's Ms. Nelson calls ''a tremendous overpackaging problem in this country'' - disposable wrappings of all sorts, for which each American pays an estimated $400 a year. And McBrian's clients are only part of an equally serious human underutilization problem - for which, through taxes, each citizen pays as well. Perhaps, as bottle bills spread, so will nonprofit redemption centers. That, it seems, would be worth our 2 cents.

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