Two decades ago, environmentalists said the mandatory return of beverage bottles and cans was one of the best ways to clean up the environment.

But today, the environmental coalition may be the greatest opponent of bottle laws - greater, even, than the beverage distributors, retailers, glass and aluminum manufacturers and labor unions that have blocked every bottle law proposed in Illinois for 20 years.When keeping litter off the streets was state government's biggest concern, bottle laws seemed the perfect answer. Now, with waste reduction the top priority, some environmentalists say bottle laws are too little, too late.

"If we were a state that had no recycling network and needed to get materials quickly, I'd understand it," said Mark Loughmiller, director of a major recycling center in Champaign. "But we're looking at disrupting an entire industry that started in business because the Legislature ignored the solid-waste problem for so long."

Bottle laws took effect in nine states during a 10-year cross-country movement. The wave started with Oregon in 1972, added Vermont, Maine, Michigan, Iowa, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Delaware, and ended with New York in 1983.

In Illinois, a network of independent recycling centers was formed.

That network would disintegrate if a bottle law were passed now, Loughmiller and other recyclers said.

Bottle laws would take away recycling centers' primary source of revenue - aluminum - by diverting it from independent centers to centers set up by retailers or municipalities.

And without aluminum to subsidize the processing of less marketable recyclables - such as newspaper, glass and plastics - independent centers would be forced out of business, said Paul Kelly of the Illinois Recycling Association.

In addition, recyclers and environmentalists question whether bottle bills are a plausible answer to modern solid-waste problems.

The original intent of bottle bills was to reduce litter. But in Illinois, waste reduction is the state's top environmental priority, and bottle bills don't really serve that purpose, said Randy Duncan, president of WECARE Recycling in Carlinville.

An ideal bottle bill would mandate or encourage the use of refillable containers - glass bottles, for the most part, Duncan said. Such a bill would take a real bite out of waste production, he said.

Illinois retailers and distributors may not have to fight a bottle bill this year: None has been introduced, and environmentalists say they may not even push for one.