Chiefly because the Montgomery County government is not ready to comply with it, a law passed four years ago mandating the use of returnable beverage bottles and cans in the county is now another year away.

Thanks to a 1933 temperance law, Montgomery County government controls all liquor sales and distribution in the county. It is the only city or county government in the nation to do so..

Robert Passmore, the newly appointed director of the Department of Liquor Control, told the council last week that the department needs more time to plan how it will retrieve and handle bottles and cans for which it would be responsible under the law.

"I could not be ready by April 1, 1980," the date the law was to become effective, Passmore said at last week's council meeting.

So the council voted to postpone for the third time the implementation of the legislation, which would require a 5-cent deposit on all beverage cans and bottles sold in Montgomery County. The new effective date is October 1980. b

Passmore explained that his department must prepare trucks, drivers and storage space to contend with the bottles and cans the county will retrieve from its 500 licensed liquor retailers and 23 county-owned stores. The county buys liquor from 150 distributing companies for resale in Montgomery, and will be required under the deposit law to pick up and store all returned containers until they can be picked up for reuse or recycling. He added that compliance with the law will create "a bureaucratic nightmare."

More than 3 million cases of beer alone were sold last year through the county liquor department, Passmore said.

Passmore is to report to the council next spring with a plan for implementing the law. By then the county also expects to have an assessment of the recyling center, proposed by the beverage industry as an alternative to the deposit law.

The goal of both the recyling center and the deposit law is to reduce litter in the county and to reuse the steel, glass and aluminum beverage containers that would otherwise go to the overburdened county landfill.

The county delay in making plans for how to comply with the deposit law was attributed to internal management problems in the liquor department and to county officials' decision to postpone the planning until the operation of a recycling center could be evaluated. The center opened this summer on Randolph Road near Rockville Pike.

Council member Rose Crenca criticized officials for the delay, saying the county was "not taking the initiative in doing what we have to do."

Previous decisions to postpone the law's effective date were made at the request of the beverage industry, primarily soft drink and beer distributors, who vehemently oppose it. Industry leaders hope the recycling center will be successful enough to make the deposit law unnecessary.

For nearly a year, industry representatives attempted to open the recycling center, where citizens are paid for bringing in bottles and cans. When snarls in water and sewer hookups prevented the center from opening on time, the industry asked the council to postpone activating the law until the facility could prove its effectiveness.

Because the Montgomery County government is also part of the beverage industry, the county contributed $10,000 to the recycling center.

Several county officials, including council president to see the beverage industry recycling center become a success, thus sparing the county an estimated initial expenditure of $1 million plus $500,000 annually on equipment and employes to handle its own bottles and containers.

Potter said at the council meeting that he is also loathe to lose the $3 million that a tax on throwaway containers contributes to county revenues.

He also expressed concern that Montgomery is one of the few jurisdictions in the area with deposit legislation. Only Fairfax and Loudon counties in Virginia now have deposit laws. Potter and others fear that the county will lose business to other areas that do not have deposit laws.

John Brier, head of the Montgomery County Environmental Coalition, and other Montgomery environmentalists believe the recycling center will not be as effective as the deposit law would be in reusing valuable materials that would otherwise go into the landfill.

At a recent public hearing, a group of high school students dumped huge trash bags of bottles and cans on the council desk.

Michael Docter, leader of the countywide student enveronmental group, told council members that students had picked the bottles and cans from county roads. He said the entire amount 200 pounds, would only net a $1 from the beverage industry recycling center.

"The people of Montgomery County want a deposit law," Docter said, waving a petition containing 4,500 signatures students collected at shopping malls last summer.

At the Randolph Road recylcing center, handicapped citizens sort and load vast amounts of litter, including non-beverage containers such as vegetable cans and sauce bottles. Citizens receive .005 cents per pound for steel cans, glass bottles and newspaper, 23 cents per pound for aluminum cans and .035 cents per pound for plastic bottles.

Bob Evers, who runs the center, said that while collections so far do not reach his anticipated goals, he is optimistic about the program's success.

"I lost the summer which is real peak time. But people dont't really know I'm here," Evers said. "Once I get some advertising I expect a dramatic increase."