On Sept. 18, 1986, in the Chinese Room of the downtown Mayflower Hotel, more than 50 executives of some of the country's largest food retailers and beverage makers sat down over a lunch of baked chicken breast and lemon mousse to decide what to do about a proposed bottle deposit initiative in the District.

What eventually emerged from that lunch was a campaign unprecedented in the city's history. Dipping into deep corporate coffers, an industry-created organization is mounting a nearly $2 million blitz of polling, politicking and advertising designed to persuade District voters that deposits on beer and soft drinks is a bad idea.

For the industry, the stakes are high: the bill would shift the burden of disposing of containers, which make up about 35 percent of the city's litter, from residents and government to retailers and manufacturers. And for residents, approval of Initiative 28 would mean a radical change in how 330 million bottles and cans are handled every year in the District, as well as likely price increases and even the possibility of bottle legislation sweeping nearby jurisdictions.

The initiative, which will appear on the District ballot on Tuesday, would require that stores impose deposits ranging from 5 cents to 20 cents on carbonated beverages sold in cans and bottles, whether glass, metal or plastic. Consumers would redeem their deposits when they return containers to stores.

To oppose Initiative 28, an industry coalition calling itself the Clean Capital City Committee has built a state-of-the-art District campaign, enlisting a national political consultant, local opinion leaders and a legion of paid precinct workers to execute a carefully crafted strategy aimed at overcoming their campaign's dilemma -- that residents who are most likely to oppose a bottle bill are least likely to vote.

The environmentalists who support deposit legislation deliberately chose to put the measure to a vote now -- in an off-year school board election they expect will attract neighborhood-minded voters who feel strongly about the bottle bill.

Carrying the issue directly to the voters after repeatedly failing to win approval from the D.C. Council and mayor, deposit advocates collected enough petition signatures over the past year to place their antilitter proposal on the ballot.

In contrast to the industry group, they are counting on hundreds of volunteers and dozens of civic association endorsements to make their case.

"When we put this on the ballot, we knew we would have a fight on our hands," said Gene Karpinski of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, one of the backers of the initiative.

"But we never anticipated the level of resources they would bring to this and the way they would use them," Karpinski said.

Since the campaign kicked into gear in April, when the D.C. Board of Election and Ethics formally placed the issue on the November ballot, both sides have offered widely differing versions of the impact of the deposit law.

While the pro-bottle bill forces have touted the measure as a solution to litter, industry has warned of higher costs, consumer inconvenience, sanitation problems and loss of beverage sales to surrounding jurisdictions.

Arrayed against the civic and environmental groups are such corporate giants as Coca-Cola Co., Pepsi-Cola Co., Anheuser-Busch, The Glass Packing Institute, The Can Manufacturing Institute and The Wine Institute -- all industry lobbying groups that have been fighting deposit legislation in other states since 1970. They have been joined by retail chains such as Giant and Safeway, as well as numerous small retailers and liquor store owners.

Last fall, when environmentalists began getting signatures to place Initiative 28 on the ballot, industry representatives emerged from their lunch at the Mayflower and went into action.

"It was apparent that they {environmentalists} were going to qualify for the ballot," recalled John Downs, a vice president of Mid-Atlantic Coca-Cola Bottling Co. "We had to start reaching out and making sure our interests were protected."

One of the group's first moves was to hire two national political polling and consulting firms -- Matt Reese Associates and Hamilton, Frederick & Schneiders -- to probe the minds of District residents on the deposit issue and devise a campaign strategy.

The consultants found that cost and convenience were the most significant concerns. But, they found, the people who were concerned were mostly low-income residents who were least likely to vote.

"It boils down to simple economics," said Charles Moreland, a D.C. consultant and formerly an organizer for the industry group. "In the communities of the more well-to-do, a few pennies make no difference . . . . Where people are less fortunate, there is a serious concern about raising the price of anything . . . . They have nightmares of dollar soda."

The city's demographics put the industry's support almost entirely in black neighborhoods, virtually eliminating from Clean Capital City's strategy the white neighborhoods of the District, such as Ward 3 in Northwest -- a development that has led to some racial undercurrents in the deposit debate.

Critics have complained that part of the industry effort has been to make blacks think bottle deposits are only an issue for well-to-do whites. Industry officials not only dispute that notion, but counter-charge that initiative proponents have concentrated their efforts in white neighborhoods.

Moreland, recalling the industry coalition's strategy, said that a committee of industry representatives along with consultants from Reese Associates interviewed a variety of local political and public relations operatives, seeking "a local minority group" to carry out day-to-day campaign activities of the industry-funded committee.

Rather than hiring one individual or firm, Moreland said Clean Capital hired several.

Moreland's firm, Jones & Moreland Associates, was designated to recruit field workers and opinion leaders who would lend their names to the effort. Prominently included in this group were labor leaders and about 130 local ministers. Jones & Moreland was paid nearly $60,000, according to campaign finance reports, before dropping out of the campaign after what Moreland described as a dispute over pay and work assignments.

Ofield Dukes, a well-known public relations businessman in Washington who counts among his clients Coretta Scott King, was hired to round up people to speak against the initiative. Dukes has received more than $16,000.

Former D.C. Council chairman and 1978 mayoral candidate Sterling Tucker also was retained in April, Moreland said, to write letters against the initiative and to speak at public events, including Clean Capital City's May 14 kickoff at the Washington Hilton, which organizers said drew about 1,800 persons.

Tucker was unavailable for comment Monday and yesterday. Tucker's name does not show up on committee reports filed with the Office of Campaign Finance, but a Clean Capital City spokesman suggested that Tucker had been hired as a subcontractor through Reese.

The most visible spokesman for the industry group has been former D.C. schools spokesman Ed Arnold, head of E. Arnold and Co., a public relations firm with offices in Silver Spring and the District. Campaign documents show Arnold's firm has been paid more than $50,000.

According to campaign organizers, the next important step in the industry effort was to establish an organization of workers who could take the antideposit campaign into targeted neighborhoods. Those recruited for the jobs included community activists, veteran Democratic election workers and relatives of elected city officials.

For instance, Harry Thomas Jr., the son of council member Harry Thomas (D-Ward 5), had been paid nearly $11,000 as of last week, in addition to incurring more than $3,400 in car rental expenses, according to finance reports.

Clean Capital City in campaign reports has listed payments of more than $80,000 to 35 paid ward workers. Numerous others have begun receiving payments of at least $100 each to work on the precinct level.

Moreland said such payments became a problem for the campaign. "When word got out about all this money, the people we used to get for free, many started asking for money," he said.

In the final days of the campaign, both sides are preparing for a major effort to get their supporters to the polls, using phone banks, mailings and leaflet drops. The industry group, according to participants, also is expected to mobilize buses and vans to transport targeted groups, especially senior citizens, to polling places.