Environmentalists, industry prepare to lock horns over '82 bottle bills

Bottle bill boosters are out to make 1982 a banner year.

Buoyed by last November's legislative victory in Massachusetts, environmental and consumer activists in close to a dozen states are bubbling with enthusiasm to ban no-deposit beer and soft-drink containers.

But opponents have lost none of their fizz, either. They appear ready to pour in a torrent of dollars to persuade lawmakers and voters to keep or reinstitute nonreturnable bottles and cans.

Most of the states where initiative drives are under way already have litter tax laws on their books. ''These simply are not working in reducing the problem of throwaway bottles and cans,'' contends Sandra Nelson, of the Washington, D.C.-based group Environmental Action, a leading supporter of bottle bills.

These views are not shared by representatives of the bottling, can, and glass-packaging industries. They have thus far successfully fought passage of a national bottle bill and have played a leading role in influencing rejection of bottle bills in several dozen states over the past 15 years.

Despite their efforts, however, bottle bills have become law in Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Michigan, Oregon, Vermont, and in Suffolk County on New York's Long Island.

Major legislative battles are under way or expected shortly in Maryland, New York, and Rhode Island. More modest skirmishes may surface elsewhere, including New Mexico, Oklahoma, Tennessee.

More visible, however, are voter-signature campaigns in Arizona, California, Colorado, and Washington aimed at placing bottle bills on next November's ballot.

Here in Massachusetts, foes of the less-than-three-month-old ban on no-deposit bottles (it requires nickle or dime deposits on beer and soft-drink containers) will be pressing for a repeal referendum. If they are successful, the bottle bill would be wiped off the books some two months before it is scheduled to take effect in Jan. 17, 1983.

The antibottle-law forces here cleared their first hurdle Feb. 16 by filing more than twice the required 28,434 voter signatures to place the controversial proposal before Massachusetts voters. The bottling industry is supporting the repeal measure.

Backers of the new law are optimistic the repeal try will fail. They note that a heavily financed, industry-led bid to wipe out the bottle law in Maine was spurned by a 51/2-to-1 margin by voters there in 1979.

But despite outward confidence, some Massachusetts bottle law backers are apprehensive, recalling the advertising blitz that helped narrowly defeat a 1976 bottle bill referendum in November 1976.

If the Massachusetts law were repealed, it would mark the first time such a law would have been repealed and deal a heavy symbolic blow against pro-bottle-bill forces. For this reason, a fierce and costly campaign already is anticipated.

The outcome could depend on whether the resources of the bottle and container-manufacturing industry are stretched thin in ballot fights elsewhere. Manufacturers may concentrate their efforts on preventing more states, especially California, the nation's most populous, from joining the bottle-bill ranks.

Groups sponsoring the California bottle bill say they have collected well over 500,000 signatures, many more than the 346,119 required to qualify for the Nov. 2 ballot.

''This is something the people want and we were able to accomplish this in 99 days,'' says Matt Kuzins, executive director of Californians Against Waste. He says his organization was encouraged by a 1979 state Department of Consumer Affairs poll that showed 84.2 percent of Californians favored a litter-control measure.

''This will be the most expensive campaign of its kind in the state's history ,'' Mr. Kuzins says. He forecasts that bottle-bill opponents will spend $10 million to fight the proposal. His group is counting on raising $500,000 to promote the measure.

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