There'll be no winners in today's vote in the District on the controversial bottle deposit initiative. A defeat of the initiative almost certainly will be interpreted by diehard proponents as an unfair result purchased with millions of dollars by big business. On the other hand, consumers and businesses in the beverage distribution chain will be losers if voters approve Initiative 28.

After months of debating and posturing, the issue is as clouded today as it was when engineers of the drive to put Initiative 28 on the ballot began their narrowly focused campaign, whose ostensible aim is to save the environment. The rhetoric of the past few months has contributed little to voters' understanding of environmental issues. Nor has it helped consumers understand the realities of the marketplace.

Under Initiative 28, consumers would be required to pay deposits ranging from five cents to 20 cents, depending on the size of the container, when purchasing a soft drink in a can or bottle. Consumers would redeem deposits by returning empty soft drink containers to merchants. Advocates of the proposal claim it is more efficient than existing recycling programs, but operators of existing container collection and recycling programs disagree. At least their system achieves the same end without added costs to anyone.

Supporters as well as opponents of Initiative 28 have bombarded District residents with propaganda, but the central issues in the bottle deposit argument have received little attention. Unfortunately, the debate has degenerated into a ridiculously shrill crusade, in which race somehow became an issue and some members of the city's clergy have been made to look like evil spirits for opposing the bill in favor of their own recycling efforts.

Regardless of the outcome of today's vote, the central issues will remain unsettled. So-called environmentalists behind Initiative 28 won't address the broader litter issue in a comprehensive way. On the other hand, the beverage industry will continue to ignore the need to develop new forms of containers or capitalize on the availability of materials other than glass and aluminum.

The arguments for and against bottle deposit laws are familiar by now. Proponents contend that adoption of such measures will enable states to clean up litter. Estimates vary, but no one can claim that bottle laws adopted in nine states so far, including Michigan and New York, have been uniformly effective in cleaning up litter. Results reported from Oscoda, Mich., for example, would contrast sharply with those from New York City. Anyone who says litter has been reduced in New York City as a result of the state's deposit law is either fantasizing or kidding.

Initiative 28 can only be described as an antibusiness and anticonsumer campaign. By forcing limited segments of the business community to bear the costs of cleaning up litter, proponents of bottle deposit laws are effectively engaging in a discriminatory practice.

Soft-drink can and bottle deposit laws by themselves can't possibly be effective in ridding the sidewalks and gutters of liquor bottles and other types of refuse that are routinely dumped on the street.

Inexplicably, soft drink retailers are singled out, while sales of liquor at liquor stores are exempt from deposit laws. Should auto dealers be forced to take deposits and return them when consumers turn in their junk heaps? How should state and local officials handle the litter problem created by trash from fast-food restaurants? While the argument can be made that some of the litter from fast-food restaurants is biodegradable, it is nonetheless an eyesore as long as it's on the streets or highways.

To be sure, food retailers and the beverage industry have been guilty in some cases of exaggerating the potential impact of a deposit law on their businesses. They have legitimate reasons, however, for opposing nuisance laws and regulations that lead to higher business costs.

Although major supermarket chains can recapture the added expense of handling returns by passing on the costs to consumers, smaller retailers will bear the brunt of the added costs of doing business. They not only lack storage space to handle returned bottles and cans, but also would be forced to swallow higher payroll costs associated with sorting and storing empty containers.

The pro and con arguments aside, organizers of the drive to place Initiative 28 on the ballot in the District have succeeded once more in putting the beverage and retail food industries on the defensive.

District voters will settle the issue temporarily today, but bottle-deposit skirmishes will be fought in other communities as long as environmentalists and the beverage industry fail to come to grips with the larger issues.

The battle over Initiative 28 clearly demonstrates that there is little room for compromise. Bold new ideas are needed then to settle the matter once and for all.

The beverage industry has the resources, if not the will, to make the bottle-bill debate moot. Given the state of technology today, surely the beverage industry can invest in and persuade container manufacturers to come up with a viable new product. If not, then what's wrong with plastic containers already used by soft drink bottlers?

At least no one is calling yet for milk producers and other food processors who use plastic containers to set up deposit-taking facilities in the war against litter.