Nearly 10 years ago, Michigan voters looked on as the local and national beverage and container industry spent $1.3 million to persuade them to vote against an initiative that would place a refundable deposit on cans and bottles.

Michigan United Conservation Clubs, a coalition of activist groups that sponsored the initiative, spent just one-tenth of that amount in favor of the bottle bill. "It was bloody," said Jim Dubbs, now chief of administration for the group. "They spent so much money that people started calling us . . . . {They were} suspicious of the kind of campaign they were running."

In the costly Michigan contest, the proponents of the bottle bill won. But four years later, similarly high-cost campaigns by bottle bill opponents quashed measures in four states, and proponents have not won since.

This year in the District, spending records are being set as Initiative 28, a Nov. 3 ballot question that would impose a refundable 5-cent deposit on bottles and cans, begins to garner attention. And while the pattern of heavy spending established elsewhere in the nation continues here, much is at stake for partisans in the bottle bill wars.

Documents filed last week in the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance show that bottlers, glass and metal manufacturers and retail outlets have raised about $743,000 to defeat the proposal, almost 20 times the amount gathered by local bottle bill advocates.

"For the size of the District that is an incredible amount," said Doug Phelps, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, which fought off a 1982 effort to repeal the state's bottle bill law.

In Massachusetts, which has more than nine times the District's population, industry representatives trying to repeal the measure spent $1 million in 1982. Bottle bill advocates spent $250,000.

Both sides in the bottle bill contest agree that a lot is riding on the District campaign. Nine states have enacted deposit legislation, but bottle bill advocates have not scored a victory since 1982, when they also lost initiative battles in Arizona, Colorado, Washington state and California.

Ed Arnold, spokesman for the local effort opposing the bottle bill, would like to keep it that way. "The last bottle bill initiative was passed in New York four years ago, and since that time the bottle bill people have been unable to make any impact," he said.

The fate of the District initiative also is important, both sides say, because whatever happens here is likely to set the stage for efforts in states such as Florida and New Mexico, where bottle bill proponents are assessing the prospects for future campaigns.

"People are aware around the country that it is coming up in Washington," said Ruth Caplan, executive director of the D.C.-based Environmental Action Foundation, which favors the measure. "Some of the spreading of the word will come from the fact that Congress resides here . . . . "

Caplan believes that if members of Congress see an effective bottle law in action, they will take the idea home. More often than not, however, voter initiatives on the bottle bill have failed. And in states such as Maryland and Virginia, repeated "People are aware around the country that {the bottle bill} is coming up in Washington . . . . Some of the spreading of the word will come from the fact that Congress resides here . . . . "

-- Ruth Caplan

legislative efforts have died in committee.

A major defeat came in California, where the Glass Packaging Institute estimates that $6.2 million was spent in 1982 to reach voters in several media markets -- six times more than bottle bill advocates raised.

The most frequent arguments over the efficacy of the bottle bill center on whether it is a workable conservation measure that reduces litter. Both sides have produced studies to prove that the nine bottle bill states are either thriving or struggling because of deposit legislation.

"The battle lines have been drawn for 15 years on this issue," said Ron Pembleton, organizational director for the California Public Interest Research Group. "There's nothing new to what they're saying or what we're saying."

Bottle bill opponents often argue that recycling is a better solution to solid waste disposal. The Glass Packaging Institute is spending $10 million in cities around the country to set up recycling programs.

"We are getting more and more requests from container legislation states to assist in some form of recycling program, because they realize that container legislation did not reduce the solid waste problem," said Austin Fiore, the Northeast regional recycling director for the Owens-Illinois Glass Co.

Bottle bills drive private recycling firms out of business and much of the glass still ends up littering the streets, he said.

Fiore favors alternatives such as New Jersey's recently enacted mandatory recycling law, which allows for curbside trash separation and pickup. Bottle bill activists who continue to lobby county by county in New Jersey demonstrate that they are more interested in a single issue than in litter control, he said.

"They are almost fighting for their own existence," he said.

Environmental Action's Caplan said that bottle bill advocates -- no matter how underfunded -- are tenacious in their determination to pass deposit legislation. "In order to win, citizens have to be willing to bring it up again and again and be able to counter the industry arguments," she said.

"The amazing thing to me is that in the nine states that have this legislation, there is no controversy," said Jonathan Puth, director of the Bottle Bill Initiative Campaign, the official committee for bottle bill proponents here. "The law works well. It just has not caused the gloom and doom that the beverage industry claims."

But John H. Downs, the mid-Atlantic Coca-Cola bottling company executive who heads the opposing Clean Capital City Committee, insisted last week that the bottle bill "just doesn't work" and that the nickel deposit would be a "hidden tax."

Three months before an off-year election featuring school board candidates, most of the D.C. bottle bill debate has taken place between the paid principals involved on both sides. But the Clean Capital City Committee already has begun an appeal for votes against the initiative with a polished series of radio ads designed to show the drawbacks of deposit legislation.

As it now stands, Downs and the committee have the money to get their message across. Puth's group, however, is hoping that a slow summer campaign and the traditional low turnout of an off-year election will tip the scales in its favor.

Said Puth: "We have an advantage in that the District of Columbia is a relatively small place, a single media market, a place where grass-roots politics is concentrated and where word of mouth is an important factor."