The major problem facing the Glass Containers Corp. here is finding enough garbage.

In a tribute to what environmental regulations is supposed to be, a combined effort by industry and government has led to some remarkable results, not the least of which is the use of would-be garbage in the form of discarded glass as the single largest raw material in the production of new glass bottles.

Because of prodding from state and federal environmental regulators a couple of years ago, the Glass Containers Corp. decided to rethink its production methods in an attempt to meet environmental air quality standards at its bottle-making facility here. There was, after all, a lot at stake - the plant generates $50 million in annual sales of about 576 million bottles to beer and soft drink bottlers.

The end result: The plant is more efficient, meets air quality standards, uses less fuel for the same amount of production, did not have to put in costly-abatement equipment, and now is using recyled glass as half the raw materials needed in its production. In addition, more than $1.4 million has been poured into the local economy, virtually creating an entirely new scavenger industry while at the same time ridding a large part of New England of the empty-bottle-along-the-roadway problem.

"I guess," says plant manager Ed Sleasman, "we didn't come out of it too badly."

Sleasman and the management of Glass Containers Corp. have much to do with the apparent success of environmental regulation at Dayville. A long-time GCC employe, Sleasman came to his rural Northeast Connecticut hamlet as plant manager in 1973.

"The environmental movement was in full swing," he remembers, "and events like Earth Day began to make us think about things like recycling and cleaning up our smokestacks."

Sleasman said although it was common knowledge that recycled glass could becrushed and cleaned (known then as cullet) and then used in manufacturing new glass bottles, there was a general resistance in the industry to its use.

"Our production people just said flat out that we couldn't use more than about 15 to 20 percent cullet on our production process," Sleasman said. "There was no real basis for that, and I never believed it."

But for two years before his arrival at Dayville, Sleasman said, "the plant was taking in just enough recyled glass to keep the wolves - the environmentalists - from the door." After his arrival, however, Sleasman upped the monthy intake of recycled glass to 1,800 tons a month, defying production people who said he could not put out quality glass with more than 20 percent cullet.

What the production people did not know was that, a few years, Sleasman, rather than close down another plant he was running because of raw material shortages, used 100 percent cullet, "and everything came out fine." He was itching to use large quantities of recycled glass again.

But another environmental problem developed at Dayville. The Environmental Protection Agency made its first contact with GCC in 1972, and promptly informed the company that its four furnaces were turning out 52 percent more particulates from their smokestacks than is allowable by law. And the sulphate count was too high.

The sulphate problem was solved merely by using a different grade of oil, but the particulates posed a major threat. Pollution abatement equipment, like extensive and hard-to-maintain scrubbers for each smokestack, would have to be bought.

"At the time, it never dawned on us that increased use of cullet would clean up the smokestacks," Sleasman said.

But continual readings of the smokestacks by the EPA revealed that pollution decreased when more cullet was being used. "It appeared that the particulates had been removed when the glass was produced the first time around," said Sleasman.

Still, the heat was on from the federal and state environmental agencies.And Connecticut, which has one of the most aggresive environmental enforcement programs - including huge fines based on what the firm should have been paying for complying with standards - wanted more than just improvement. The factory would have to comply with existing standards.

"We couldn't find enough cullet; there weren't any scavengers in business and the recycling programs were not bringing in enough, so we bought a scrubber for one of the smokestacks," Sleasman said. The scrubber cost GCC $300,000 plus about $35,000 a year in maintenance costs, and rarely works more than 10 days straight without some form of costly breakdown.

"The scrubber convinced us to look at alternatives," Sleasman said.

So he became more aggressive in seeking out recyclers and encouraging scavengers to bring in glass. GCC representatives went to community group meetings and encouraged them to recycle glass for profit. GCC began paying up $37 a ton for already refined recycled glass.

Meanwhile, Sleasman paid a visit to a scavenger who was delivering "clean" recycled glass. He wanted to see how the man was removing such things as metals caps, aluminuim bands. When Sleasman saw the conveyor belt and filter system, he knew he had to have it.

"So I asked him what he wanted for it, and I bought it," Sleasman said. With later additions, including magnets and further filters, Sleasman now has on his plant site the most advanced glass recycling operation ever built.

And now the glass is really coming in. During the past 12 months, more than 70,000 tons have been taken in, with GCC shelling out $2.5 million to all sorts of scavengers and recycling groups - a full 40 percent of the total plant outlay for raw materials.

"People with college degrees are pulling up with truckloads of broken glass, and pulling out with $600 or $700 a throw," Sleasman says.

And GCC now employes 10 new people to run its recycling operation six days a week. Trucks are weighed coming in, their loads are emptied and checked for quality - no loose metal, colors are separated into clear, amber and green - and weighed on the way out. Then they are paid on the difference in weight. The stream of trucks is nearly constant. The color separation is particularly important, because it allows for quality control. Anheuser-Busch, for example, demands an amber bottle because it keeps sunlight from spoiling the beer.

"We had another side benefit because of using recycled glass," Sleasman remembers. "We found that cullet melts easier than our usual raw materials, and we need 10 to 15 percent less heat to melt it down. We haven't figured out how much yet, but we know we are saving on our fuel bills.

Sleasman and GCC top management in Fullerton, Calif., are entusiastic about their working relationship with the EPA."They could have come in here at any time and just said, 'do it now,' and we might have cut our operation in half. Instead, they were patient, worked with us while we increased out cullet imput. And now we are working full shifts around the clock (employment is at a new high of 1,035 - up 200 since 1974, paying out well over $1 million to the local economy, keeping thousands of tons of glass out of the solid waste landfills, and turning out bottles as good as they have ever been."

"Our only problem," Sleasmans says, "is finding enough old glass . . . finding enough garbage to turn into new glass."

EPA Boston enforcement official Steve Fradkoff said GCC has been "very cooperative - which is why we gave them more time." EPA first gave the company until June 1976 to comply with air quality standards. But when that goal was not met "because they said they were having trouble finding enough cullet," Fradkoff gave them an extension until December.

"We could have stepped in andtaken some action," Fradkoff said, "but they showed that they had the technology, so we gave them more time." Time to develop more sources of recycled bottles was all GCC needed. When the use of cullet hit 50 percent, a check revealed the plant's emissions to be safely under the mandated levels for particulates.

One of the few remaining problems - securing a continued source of cullet - is likely to be eased considerably soon. Two separate resource recovery plants, which will churn out large quantities of cullet for industrial use, are expected to be completed soon in Hempstead, L.I., and Bridgeport, Conn. The latter is part of an EPA project with private industry. Glass Container Corp. will be a major recipient of much or all of the cullet from those plants.

Now Fradkoff, too, is happy.

"This is the type of solution we like - environmentally sound," he said. "They are recycling glass, saving fuel costs and probably extending the life of the furnaces by using the cullet. And it is one of the few opportunities where they came into compliance without having to spend a lot of money."

Washington EPA officials are delighted with the Glass Container Corp. solution.

"We've tried to have our regulatory approach decentralized to allow case-by-case decision making between people on both sides to meet performance standards, to allow for different ways of solving the problems," says EPA Assistant Administrator William Drayton.

"That is the essential phenomenon of the EPA," he adds.

Drayton says one of the hidden benefits of environmental regulation is that it forces managers to go back and re-evaluate efficiency and their processes.

Or, as Ed Sleasman puts it, "If the EPA hadn't put the squeeze on us, none of this would have happened."