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ACTIVISM SHIFTS TOWARD INDIVIDUALS

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In a city known for environmental righteousness, Carl and Anya Woestwin are among the most righteous of all.

Anya hoards plastic produce bags, washing and reusing them until they fall apart. Carl urinates into a milk carton, then uses it to fertilize their organic garden. What's more, Carl and Anya insist, they enjoy every minute of their low-impact lifestyle."This is not privation," Anya said. "The basic goal is to use as few external resource inputs as possible, produce as much as possible - and have a really good time."

Good time? Environmentalism? Not many people would mention those ideas in the same breath.

Environmental responsibility, once a comfortable enough notion when the villains were corporate polluters with belching smokestacks, has become more personal. Pollution control increasingly focuses not on the likes of Acme Slag & Sludge but on small excesses committed daily by ordinary citizens.

Do you know anybody, like maybe yourself, who can't be bothered to sort trash into recycling bins? Or who uses a smoke-billowing lawn mower that's been kicking around the garage since the 1960s? Or who, when nobody's looking, dumps the black ick from an oil change in the back yard?

Such penny-ante polluters have become the environmental scoundrels of the 1990s, judging from all the new rules cracking down on them:

- The federal Environmental Protection Agency last spring proposed new air-pollution standards for lawnmowers, then followed up in October by clamping down on recreational motorboats.

- Last winter in Denver, residents were ordered not to use fireplaces or wood stoves 132 times, or nearly half the days that anyone would want a fire, in an effort to clear up the city's infamous Brown Cloud.

- More than 6,600 communities nationwide now have curbside recycling programs, up from about 1,000 just five years ago. Many are mandatory, requiring households to use separate bins for glass, cans and paper.

- Smog-control officials in the San Francisco area urged residents in September not to use aerosol deodorants, barbecue lighter fluid or even alcohol-based perfumes, all in the name of reducing gases that create smog.

"As we have gotten the biggies under control, the smaller sources of pollution become more important," said Jerry Martin, spokesman for the California Air Resources Board.

How to promote that responsibility, and how much responsibility is really necessary, are matters of fierce debate - a debate that's sure to continue as the new Republican-controlled Congress takes a hard look at the proliferation of environmental regulations.

Should government mandate environmental consciousness, with stiff fines for violators? Should it try to shame people into less-polluting lifestyles with education campaigns?

Either way, some conservatives say, environmentalists and their allies in government are threatening the economy by forcing an excuse-me-for-living mentality on Americans.

People would revolt if they were told "you have to do these things because you must obey us," Arnold said. "But if you catch them in this green guilt, then they go along with it like sheep. They beg for regimentation. They say, `Enslave me, please,' and America begins to look like a bondage movie."

Not surprisingly, Carl and Anya Woestwin disagree. They believe the new environmental laws are a needed antidote for Americans' wasteful ways.

But what is surprising is that Arnold and the Woestwins agree at all, which they do.

After railing for 45 minutes against liberal, anti-business tree-worshipers, Arnold caught his breath by boasting how he and his family recycle their trash at home in Bellevue, across Lake Washington from Seattle.

Like Seattle, the city of Bellevue provides recycling bins and curbside pick-up, then charges for unsorted trash by the can. The more a family recycles, the less trash it produces and the less it pays.

Arnold is proud that his family uses the smallest trash can allowed. But rather than call it environmental responsibility, he considers it old-fashioned frugality.

The economic incentive is key, Arnold said. "There is some genuine personal benefit" to voluntary recycling, he said. "If a person wants to be a wastrel and a spendthrift, there shouldn't be a law against it."

Frugality is something the Woestwins appreciate. Nearly all of what they do to live lightly on the Earth also happens to save them money.

They buy their clothes secondhand, and they own one car, a Honda Civic that they drive about 6,000 miles each year. Carl, 49, bicycles to work at the Seattle Solid Waste Utility, where he manages waste-reduction programs. He totes his lunch in a nylon bag, returning at night with a newspaper scrounged from the employee lunchroom.

Their modest two-story house sits on a 52-by-110-foot city lot that they've filled with fruit trees and edible shrubs. Chickens scratch beneath their deck, laying organic eggs.

Anya, 42, never goes to the natural-foods store without her shopping kit of three canvas bags, old bottles for bulk purchases, reused plastic bags and a little bundle of frayed twist ties.

While Arnold complains about feeling hemmed in by the new, more intimate brand of environmentalism, the Woestwins say their trimmed-down lifestyle feels liberating.