Environmental issues have finally gained mainstream support. In a recent survey conducted by the Deseret News, nearly every member of the Utah State Legislature came out, at least in principle, in support of leaving our environment in better shape for future generations than we found it.

The Legislature, however, is now balking at a rare opportunity to join the lead in taking concrete action to preserve the environment and conserve our dwindling resources.This opportunity comes in the form of the "Bottle Bill," sponsored by Sen. Robert Steiner, which mandates that a deposit of 5 to 10 cents be charged on all aluminum, glass and plastic beverage containers in the state.

The deposit is refunded to the customer when the container is returned. This system provides an incentive for citizens to avoid throwing away these valuable items that otherwise would go into landfills.

Returning bottles is not a new concept by any means. Many people can still recall the days when children collected bottles and turned them in for their 2-cent deposit, a boon for the kids and the litter problem both. That activity has faded out over the years, as the particularly American ways of consumerism have taken over.

But now, as "the sins of the '80s" come due and a new environmental awareness is sweeping the nation, we find that only nine states already have bottle bills similar to the one in front of our Legislature.

Utah has a chance to become the 10th state with this sort of bill, and therefore a visible leader in the fight to preserve the quality of the environment.

The return rates of beverage containers in states with bottle bills (usually around 80 percent to 95 percent) are astounding compared to states without.

Even in jaded New York, recycling rates jumped from 18 percent to 82 percent for aluminum, from 4 percent to 79 percent for non-refillable glass and from just 1 percent to an incredible 57 percent for plastic containers upon implementation of New York's bottle bill.

This high proportion of recycling translates to a large saving in energy, landfill space and raw materials. For example, it takes 1/20th as much energy to make a can from recycled aluminum as it does to produce it from raw aluminum ore.

As recent events in the Persian Gulf show, our excessive energy consumption does not come without numerous high prices. Petroleum products supply the raw materials to manufacture plastics. Anything we can do to reduce our dependence on them should be considered a necessary step.

So why is the Legislature shirking from passing the bottle bill? Mainly because of opposition from grocers, who would be charged with handling the containers and administering the deposits.

In a University of Utah survey just last October, it was found that about 77 percent of Utahns either support or strongly support the passing of a bottle bill. Evidently our legislators have forgotten that it is Utah's environmentally concerned populace that elects them, not the grocer community.

Lawmakers also face opposition from professional recyclers, who fear that a bottle bill would threaten their jobs. But one can look to the other nine states, in which the professional recycling community has adapted to the situation and even benefited from it.

Bottle bills create jobs rather than destroy them. In Massachusetts, a company called New England Container Recovery Inc., employing over 250 people, started up on the day that the Massachusetts bottle bill went into effect.

That company now processes around 91,000 tons of containers each year. Remember, that's 91,000 tons of material that is not going into overcrowded New England landfills, but instead back into useful service with a minimum of energy for processing and reforming.

In the nine states with bottle bills, no significant price increases in grocery stores have been noted. Also, in these states, no new sanitation problems have developed in grocery stories that handle beverage containers, even in New York City where population and roaches abound.

Bottle bills have had years to prove themselves in these other nine states, and they have done it. Utah's bottle bill is modeled on the others before it and seems guaranteed to produce results that benefit everyone in the state.

If the bottle bill were presented before the public in a direct vote, indications are that it would pass handily. Utahns want concrete steps taken to preserve our scenic wonders and reduce our dependence on oil.

It is only fair that our legislators vote as we would, rather than be swayed by those who inaccurately perceive that environmental considerations and financial profit must always be at odds.

(Kent D. Withrow, Salt Lake City, holds a B.S. degree in mechanical engineering, with an emphasis on environmental engineering.)