By Per Movig
On a Sunday afternoon, Maximiliaan Braakman, 62 years old and a resident of Carolina Macgillavrylaan, sets out to check on the underground trash bins throughout his street. An overcast sky reminds him it’s November, but the cold, drizzly weather doesn’t deter him. His reflective green jacket and beanie keep him warm and depict his trademark logo: a green gorilla.
Braakman, always prepared, carries the tools of the trade: a bin key granted to him by the municipality (which he refers to as “the key to happiness”), a long metal scaffolding pole with concrete hardened around the end for weight, a flat horizontal blade for sticker removal, and a pair of studded gloves for safety. Only one item in his arsenal seems out of place: a red spray can that he carries with him at all times and uses to write messages on furniture and other bigger trash items left next to the bins.
“I don’t see another solution except to convince people through provocation”Maximiliaan Braakman
Methodologically, he makes his way down the lengthy street in Oost, which, despite its large inhabitancy, looks a little forlorn with its tiny trees and abundance of concrete – not to mention the sizeable distance between its buildings. With the discipline of a craftsman, he carefully inspects the contents of each bin and uses his pole to press it down with deft, gondolier inspired motions.
This activity comprises part of his duty as a container adopter, a volunteer position which, according to Joan Bongsomenggolo, manager of container adopters at the Municipality of Amsterdam, makes him responsible for cleaning up trash around the bins and unclogging them if necessary. He is not afraid to clean up the mess of others. “There’s a kind of trepidation that you have to get over,” he says, “and once that is gone, there’s no holding back.”
Braakman often goes beyond the line of duty when he resorts to provocation and verbal confrontation to get his neighbours to clean up – behaviour which not all inhabitants of the street appreciate. What makes him care so much and go that far? It started in the Zonnelaan.
1962, the Zonnelaan (sunlane), Haarlem, The Netherlands. A green street in the Tuinwijk neighborhood, bordering the river Spaarne. The place of Braakman’s birth, a social housing complex designed by Dutch architect J.B van Loghem in 1922, enveloping a small private park with countless trees and shrubs. One of his earliest and most emotionally charged memories: him, there, three years old, looking through a stained-glass window and seeing eye to eye with a redbreast. “I am mesmerized by nature” he explains, “it’s not a religion – it’s a basic practice that gives me a lot of peace.” His other memories tell the story of a town that was much smaller back then, with less littering and a stronger sense of social responsibility – an attitude he desperately wants back.
Braakman fought to get through high school and completed his six-year program in eight years. He attributes this (as well as his trash fixation) to his ADHD. In 1986, he became a licensed physiotherapist after studying at the Academy for Physiotherapy Leffelaar. Due to high youth unemployment rates in the Netherlands, he moved to Siegen, Germany, where he opened a practice and got his nickname: The Green Gorilla. At some point a patient, who knew Braakman’s love for nature, referenced a children’s book featuring a gorilla and told him “you’re the Green Gorilla.”
In 2017, he stopped working and moved back to Amsterdam. It did not take long for him to grow irritated with the abundance of trash there, which was nothing like the Zonnelaan of his childhood. He decided to make it his mission to turn Amsterdam into “the cleanest city in the Netherlands.” First step: volunteering as a container adopter, a position he got on 5 February 2018.
He began calling his occupation “waste alignment” and repurposed a physiotherapeutic logic for this endeavor. People who litter, he argues, display symptoms of “precontinental adolescence.” Braakman has coined many such terms – he seems to have a bottomless database. This one refers to the behavior of people who never learned how to relieve themselves.
“If I’d start to whisper and to write pieces, no one would care”Maximiliaan Braakman
To fight this “precontinental adolescence,” Braakman employs methods to lift trash negligence from “the subconscious level to the conscious level.” Since becoming a container adopter, he claims to have spoken with at least 1000 people in the streets of Amsterdam to raise awareness about recycling and waste disposal. Ellie Swan, third year AUC student, details how Braakman once approached her on the sidewalk to talk about environmental issues and the larceny of Albert Heijn shopping carts. She states that he refused to leave her alone despite repeatedly being asked to and denounces the way he forces his opinion on other people, adding “I would prefer a more leading by example […] approach.”
Braakman does not just try to get his messages across verbally, but also through sometimes instructive yet often demeaning red spray-paint texts that he covers mattresses in the street with from top to bottom (images of which he posts to his Instagram). He addresses texts like “put in some effort”, “no go, aso [Dutch slang for an antisocial person]” or “align your waste or leave” to the mattresses’ former owners. Bongsomenggolo does not approve of the graffiting, stating “We don’t want that because it gives an even filthier and messier appearance to the area.”
Getting under people’s skin, according to Braakman, is a technique for getting them to contemplate their actions. Sometimes he does this unintentionally. On 4 August 2019, he dragged bulky waste away from the container bins – generating a lot of noise – to assist pickup services in retrieving it. Unfortunately, he chose a bad time to do this: 10 PM – and startled a woman so much that she called the police, who arrived at the scene and cited him.
Other times, it is completely intentional. Boris Koehoern, AUC alumnus, reports that Braakman once fished his empty shipping box from a container, extracted the address, and placed it in his mailbox along with a message telling him to cut up his cardboard. Koehorn speculates that the trash must’ve caused a blockage but doesn’t really understand how this was his fault. Braakman denies taking trash from the container and posits that it was likely blown onto the street by the wind. Needless to say, the former AUC student did not like receiving this present in his mail, and dismissively calls him “the boomer that discovered activism.”
Bongsomenggolo paints the container adopter as someone who should be “a positive example for other Amsterdam residents.” But Braakman stubbornly continues to walk down his own confrontational path. “If I’d start to whisper and to write pieces, no one would care” he says, “I don’t see another solution except to convince people through provocation.”
Braakman and Bongsomenggolo’s quotes have been translated from Dutch by Per Movig.
Editor’s note: This profile is part of a collaboration between The Herring and AUC’s journalism course. The story was written, edited, and fact-checked by students of the journalism course. Some content may have been altered by The Herring’s editors for clarity and style.