The Environmental Protection Agency is still suffering guilt pangs for buying $120 worth of toy garbage cans a couple of years ago.

TEPA purchased the items, filled with candy in the shape of old tires, fish heads, shoes and tin cans, as part of a federal antipollution campaign. The price for the 1,152 toy trash cans, with candy, was $120.

The reason for the purchase: EPA took a booth at the National Solid Waste Management Associations meeting in New Orleans. Everybody who was anybody in garbage was there, including representatives of our government.

As partof a promotion gimmick to lure people to the EPA exhibits, an official bought and gave away cans of fake garabage candy to delegates at the conference. They were the talk of the show. So was he.

Everything went well until the official who bought the candy cans presented the bill to EPA. Various EPA offices bounced the voucher around, suggesting that somebody else pay it.

In a brave attempt to justify the expenditure, a spokesman for the Office of Solid Wastes, pointed out that the cans were tools of the trade. They were not gifts - which are illegal - but rather "the little cans certainly did attract convention attendees to our exhibit where the attendees had an opporunity to learn about the provisions of the new Resource Conservation and Recovery Act." While there to receive their candy garbage cans, people also were given copies of the Federal Register to read, and pamphlets telling what EPA does.

Fortunately, an official explained "this was done under the previous administration" although it is doubtful that President Ford knew about it, or would have approved had he known.

To prevent mishaps like this in the future, the EPA asked the General Accounting Office to issue a ruling on the legality of buying toy garbage cans filled with candy. GAO, which gets all kinds of financial "Mother-may-I?" requests, looked into it.

The result was a ruling called:

"Novelty Garbage Cans Distributed By Environmental Protection Agency," The decision came out the other day.

In nonlegal language, the GAO said it would much prefer in the future if federal officials restrained frombuying plastic garbage cans full of candy, just as it frowns on cigarette lighters, ash trays and other items with agency seals of messages.

EPA says that everybody involved has learned his or her lesson and that it will never happen again.