Some 20 area legislators and bureaucrats, arguing that a wise shopper inspects the merchandise before buying, plan to fly to Europe at taxpayers' expense for a look at the continent's latest trash-disposal technology.

Plans for expensive plants to reclaim energy from refuse are on the drawing boards in Montgomery, Prince George's and Fairfax counties and in the District. Organizers of the trip, set for March 23, predict that much of the necessary equipment will be purchased in western Europe, said to be 20 years ahead of the United States in this field.

Coping with the mountain of plastic bags, cans, ice cream cartons and other garbage discarded daily in the Washington area has emerged in the past decade as the great conundrum facing county legislators.

The problem demands more than a technical solution. Neighborhoods once apathetic have been known to organize overnight when word leaks out that county lawmakers want to place a landfill (as today's garbage dumps are called), sludge plant or trash furnace anywhere near their homes.

Later this year the Montgomery County Council will be asked to rule on a $150 to #200 million trash-fired power plant, proposed for completion by 1987 near the intersection of Shady Grove Road and Rte. 355.

Together with the giant landfill at Laytonsville -- work is proceeding there despite lawsuits and local agitation against it -- the resource-recovery plant is intended to offer some long-term relief of the county's problem of what to do with the effluents from affluence.

Sales teams from plant manufacturing firms have been calling at county offices in recent months. But council member Neal Potter argues that legislators need first-hand exposure: "To see the plants, to see the stack, to smell it, to hear the noise . . . the things that might not appear in the four-color pictures and the salesmen's talks." Council members have already visited three plants in the United States, but none had the air-pollution "scrubbers" and landscaped aesthetic appeal that Montgomery County is looking for. Those plants are found in Europe, planners say.

Council members say they are also anxious to see with their own eyes how a mammoth furnace and generator can be built next door to a residential community without seriously harming the quality of life.

Prince George's, which generates 2,000 to 2,500 tons of solid waste daily, has asked for proposals from manufacturers for a solid-waste and sludge energy-recovery plant that would cost $50 to $60 million and probably go into operation four years from now. Those proposals are to be submitted by the middle of April.

"The European trip will expose us to five different mass burning technologies. As far as I'm concerned, it's extremely timely," said Prince George's Chief Administrative Officer Ken Duncan. "I'm not about to award a contract until I see it first hand -- what a plant looks like, the environmental controls."

The county now is using two landfills. "Since I'm going to be the one ultimately to sign the contract, I want to see things first hand," said Duncan.

Cost of the trip will be about $3,500 per person, county officials say. One Montgomery council staff assistant and five executive branch officials are tentatively slated to go; two council members slated originally now say they probably will not.

Executive officials whose trips are confirmed thus far are Bob Wilson, chief administrative officer; Jerome Lezkiewicz, director of the office of environmental construction, and Andrea Eaton, project manager for the county solid-waste project.

Prince George's officials already scheduled to make the trip include Chief Administrative Officer Duncan, County Council member David Hartlove, and Alan Jones, head of the urban services bureau of the Department of Public Works.

A spokesman for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission said the agency expects to send three representatives. Also scheduled to make the trip are a Fairfax County official, a Pepco representative and a District government official, according to the spokesman. Several state government officials also may go along.

Apparently sensitive to charges of "junketeering" and wasting tax dollars, Montgomery council president Ruth Spector has pointed out that "even if all seven council members were to take this trip, the cost . . . would only represent only a little over one-hundredth of 1 percent of the total cost of the facility itself."

As for staying home, Spector said, "I would compare it to buying a $150 million car or house and never going to look at it beforehand."

Council member Rose Crenca, however, says she will not go, citing insufficient time to prepare for the project. Moreover, she said, it would disrupt her work on the county budget. "I would feel I would have wasted taxpayers' money," she said.

No final agenda has been set, but tour organizers say they plan intensive briefings and tours at two plants per day for five days. Most would be in West Germany, but the group may visit plants in France and Switzerland as well.

Delegation members would be free to take their spouses and stay on in Europe after the tour was over, provided they paid the extra costs themselves.

Two years ago a delegation including Montgomery and Prince George's legislators toured European sludge treatment plants. Council member Potter, a member of that group, recalls that the sites and interviews wwith plant managers and nearby residents convinced the group that a "silo" sludge plant would be suitable for Prince George's County. Political opposition in the county has plagued efforts to build such a plant, however.