An American environmental group, fearing that the return of Coca-Cola will soon have the Chinese up to their Great Wall in empties, yesterday urged the People's Republic to ban throwaway containers.

Environmental Action wrote Chai Tse-min, chief of the People's Republic Washington liaison office, this week, urging that China "adopt a mandatory deposit system immediately."

"While we welcome the long-awaited normalization of diplomatic relations between our two countries, we caution you to avoid falling into the same traps that have raised our taxes, squandered our energy and cluttered our landscapes," advised Diane MacEachern, of Environmental Action's National Clearinghouse on Deposit Legislation.

Chai was not available for comment yesterday, but a call to the People's Republic liaison office here produced a bemused response from Wang Tiemming, an economic researcher. Wang said that in his five years here he has never encountered a throwaway bottle.

In China, where locally made soft drinks are widely used, he said people may throw bottles away, if they like. However, they can also return them for a refund, he said.

"I don't think its compulsory, but we advocate it," he added.

The letter from Environmental Action was prompted by the announcement last week that Coca-Cola Co. has signed an agreement with the People's Republic, and will begin shipping Coke to China in a few weeks.

MacEachern said that, when she read the announcement. "I thought, my God, what would it mean to have no-deposit, no-return bottles in China. Every year Americans throw away 70 billion beverage containers, enough to encircle the globe twice.

If the Chinese with their 900 million people did likewise, she wrote Chai, "your country could soon find itself in the awkward position of constructing a second 'Great Wall' in order to dispose of the containers properly!"

As it happens, the first shipments of Coke to China will include both returnable bottles, and cans, a Coca-Cola spokesman said yesterday. However, it is unlikely they will be recycled, because foreign visitors will take them home for souvenirs, he predicted. Once the Chinese start making their own Coke containers as expected, they may make them deposit or nodeposit as they choose, the spokesman said.

In the Soviet Union, where Pepsi-Cola has a monopoly, only refundable bottles are sold.

In the United States, however, the bottle bill lobby has had only limited success. Legislation calling for a nationwide deposit system on all bottles, the so-called bottle bill, has been introduced in Congress without success for four years.

Hoeven states have passed laws requiring deposits of from 2 to 10 cents: Oregon, Vermont, Michigan, Maine, Delaware, Iowa and Connecticut.

While federal studies have shown that a national deposit system would conserve 80,000 barrels of oil per day, and would save U.S. consumers more than $1.3 billion a year, the bill is opposed by labor unions and the soft drink industry, which say it would result in job loss and cut into profits.