BOSTON, OCT. 30 -- John Doherty, who makes his home on the streets, toddled into the Star Market this week loaded down with his latest hoard of cans and bottles, scavenged from this city's choicest trash containers in the affluent Back Bay area. A store clerk toted them up -- 95 in all -- and handed Doherty a register slip worth $4.75 at the checkout counters, courtesy of the state's mandatory bottle deposit law.

"Best thing that ever happened," said Doherty. "It sure beats panhandling."

Two blocks away, at DeLuca's Market, hospital administrator Cynthia Taft browsed among the prime meats and fresh banana bran muffins, then blinked a few times and repeated, "Bottle bill? Refresh my memory," when asked about the Massachusetts law that took effect in 1983. "I don't buy many bottles. Do we get money for returning cans?"

In Boston, the state capital where a 10-year war was waged on the issue, attitudes toward the bottle deposit law run from adoring to oblivious. Two things, though, are certain about the law, which is similar to a measure that will appear on the District of Columbia ballot Tuesday.

First of all, the Massachusetts law that opponents spent more than $3.5 million battling, according to some estimates, did not bring on Armageddon. "It ain't no need to cry about it," shrugged Joe Silvy, the manager of a small market in Roxbury, one of Boston's poorest sections. "At first it seemed like it was going to be a real problem. But now? Not at all."

And, secondly, Boston is cleaner than before the bottle law, according to both friends and foes of the law.

"If you or I were walking in Boston and dropped a can, there'd be someone right there to pick it up and redeem it," said Mary Miley, administrator of the Massachusetts Beverage Container Law.

Pepsi Bottling Co. executive and industry lobbyist John Webster agreed, "No doubt about it, the streets are cleaner . . . . The question is, at what cost?"

It all depends on whom you ask.

Mary Ellen Chase, a computer operator and mother of two, dropped off two months' worth of one- and two-liter bottles at her local Flanagan's in South Boston this week and picked up $2.70. "I don't mind at all," she said. "The streets are cleaner, and it's a little way of saving. I'll cash these now and put the money in a jar at home."

One of Chase's South Boston neighbors, firefighter Rardie Leahy, calls the system "America's biggest ripoff. It's an unnecessary tax. I pay the five cents and don't take the bottles back."

His wife Peggy said that while there may be fewer bottles and cans in the streets, there are people tearing into trash cans and leaving the rubbish strewn around as they look to make their nickels. "You can hear the clinkles all night," she said.

The system appears simple. Consumers pay a 5-cent deposit on each bottle or can of any size. The containers are marked with the name of the state and the words "5

Refund." In the District, the deposit would vary with the size of the container.

In Flanagan's, as in many stores, there is a redemption counter at the front, where consumers line up to turn in their containers and collect a receipt. The consumers then go through the regular checkout line to get their money back.

The system gets more complicated behind the counter, and has spawned conflicting reports on the issues of increased costs for beer and soft drinks, inconvenience to retailers and the actual scope of the cleanup.

Figures kept by the state's Alcohol Beverage Control Commission -- and highly disputed by many -- show that more than 84 percent of the containers in the state are returned for deposits, according to commission Chairman George R. McCarthy.

Miley uses that figure, but adds, "Everyone is guessing. No one really knows."

In the battle here, as elsewhere, soft drink and beer distributors predicted huge price increases. Beer prices have gone up, with what one lobbyist called "an initial jolt" in 1983 for start-up costs and routine increases since then.

"There was a hue and cry by the public . . . that the beverage industry was trying to get back at us. That's just not true," said Glenn Alberich, counsel to the Massachusetts Wholesalers of Malt Beverages. "When an industry geared to distribute X number of bottles and cans had to handle twice that many, that couldn't cost anything but money."

Still, many dispute the causes of the increases. "I've worked here 15 years," said Sam Rivers of Dudley's Liquors in Roxbury. "I saw beer go up every two years, and that was without the bottle bill."

As for soft drinks, a December 1982 newspaper ad for Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola at Stop and Shop, one of the city's largest grocery chains, showed 2-liter bottles on sale for $1.09. Last week, the same product was on sale for 99 cents.

Pepsi executive Webster said prices went up with the bottle bill, and later dropped because of heavy competition in the industry.

While the major grocery chains, as Stop and Shop executive John Wozniak puts it, have "learned to live with the bottle bill comfortably," the smaller stores have felt the biggest brunt of all those bottles and cans.

"It's a real pain to handle," said Susan Johnson, manager of Johnson's package store and deli in South Boston. "There's the smell. There's the space you need . . . . There's the bugs. I never had a roach in here. Now I have to get exterminated every two weeks."

Robert Aiello, an owner of DeLuca's Markets, said the problems involve everything from space in stores where the rents run up to $50 a square foot to sanitation.

There is also a nightmarish sorting process, required by distributors who collect the containers from stores, in which the empty Coke bottles must not be bagged with the empty Pepsi containers; the brown glass may not be mixed with the green, and the 2-liters must not intermingle with the 1-liters.

Still, some enterprising souls are trying to make money from the process.

Approximately 100 warehouse operations specializing in mass container redemptions have opened around the state since 1983. Bob Denn, who runs the South Boston Redemption Center, said it is a tough business fraught with problems, but that some days his 5,000-square-foot warehouse "is jammed to the ceilings."

Thirteen beer distributors have joined to handle another aspect of the business, forming a collection firm called New England CRINC that picks up empties from retailers, processes them and sells them to the glass and aluminum industries.

And West Roxbury's Boy Scout Troop No. 1 got in the act, too. Members earned nearly $15,000 by collecting 300,000 containers, enough to send 55 Scouts to the World Boy Scout Jamboree in Ireland.