Talking Trash or Trash Talking?

Lebanon Valley College students visit the Quittapahilla Creek Garbage Museum

Garbage comes in all shapes and sizes, and can be found almost everywhere. When not disposed of properly, it becomes “rogue” garbage that litters the streets, gets washed down the storm drains, and soon ends up in the nearest waterway, where it either gets buried in the mud and debris piles or flushes into the world’s oceans. This continuing cycle is hazardous for the planet. 

In 2011, Dr. Michael Schroeder, associate professor of history, founded the Quittapahilla Creek Garbage Museum, which he describes as “an artistic space where people in the Lebanon Valley and beyond come face-to-face with the dark underbelly and undesired ripple effects of the throw-away society in which they live.” The Museum, which currently holds more than 3,000 plastic garbage “artifacts” collected from Quittie Creek, is located along the Quittie’s north bank in his backyard at 8 E. High St. in Annville. 

“I’m from Minnesota originally, where there are lakes and streams everywhere,” said Dr. Schroeder. “I love flowing water–as the Water Protectors in North Dakota say, ‘Water is life.’  So when I moved to Annville I was naturally drawn to Quittie Creek. And pretty soon I was amazed and dismayed at the vast quantities of garbage in this lovely little creek.” 

After filling multiple garbage bags on those walks, Dr. Schroeder decided to put his “artifacts” on display.

“I would find a doll, or a toy truck, or something else interesting, and I’d put it off to one side,” said Dr. Schroeder. “Then it occurred to me: why not build a museum, and frame these useless bits of plastic trash as ‘artifacts’?” 

As Dr. Schroeder envisions it, “The Garbage Museum compels visitors to consider the connections between plastic trash in our local waterways–‘litter’–and broader national and global issues.”

This outdoor museum is shaped like a seashell, which Dr. Schroeder describes as “a symbolic representation of one of the world’s five great oceanic garbage patches.”

Each collected item is scrubbed clean in soapy water before being strung up on fishing line and hung up for display. Last year the Museum hosted an estimated 500 visitors, including several field trips by local scouting groups and school children.

Students from Lebanon Valley College frequently take part in the cleanups, especially around Earth Day. However, not every piece of garbage makes the cut for the museum. “The worst offender is Styrofoam,” said Dr. Schroeder. “A person could spend all day every day, 365 days a year picking up scraps of Styrofoam from the creek and still not get it all.” Beneath the layer of floating plastic trash is another composed of scraps of metal, rubber, plastic, ceramics, and glass littering the creek bed. 

“Ninety-five percent of what I find in the creek does not end up on display,” said Dr. Schroeder.

For his outstanding work raising public awareness about the mass quantities of “rogue garbage” in our local waterways, Dr. Schroeder received the Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence from Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf earlier this year.

“The physical existence of the Museum and its registration as a bona-fide non-profit corporation in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania creates a credible platform and vehicle for the dissemination of information and knowledge on a host of larger issues–from “littering” and our throw-away society to unsustainable consumption patterns, our addiction to fossil fuels, global climate disruption, and much more,” noted Dr. Schroeder.

The museum is currently on display in Dr. Schroeder’s backyard, but will be moved in October to his new house next to Annville-Cleona High School.