INDIANAPOLIS – In a workshop on the grounds of the former Central State Hospital, artisans work to give a city’s trash new life.
The staff of Indianapolis’ People for Urban Progress organization repurposes building materials and other salvaged supplies into fashionable items for sale like travel bags, messenger bags, backpacks, wallets and purses.
“It really was an environmental decision,” said People for Urban Progress executive director Andrea Cowley. “Why create something new when you have something perfectly useful?”
The non-profit organization began in 2008 when the Indianapolis Colts moved into the new Lucas Oil Stadium. Their former home, the RCA Dome, was slated for demolition, and the group acquired 13 acres of Teflon-coated fiberglass material used as an inflatable dome.
“The stuff is nearly indestructible and would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to reproduce,” Cowley said. “So finding a new use for it is exactly what you should be doing.”
The group’s sewing and design teams combined the RCA dome fabric with additional upcycled and reclaimed materials to form products Cowley calls eco fashion.
One of the group’s products, a messenger bag, is made with dome fabric, event banners and seatbelts. A wallet for sale at the organization’s shop is made from dome fabric and banners that adorned the city when it hosted its first Super Bowl in 2012. PUP even teamed up with the organizers of the Fountain Square Music Festival to salvage and reuse banners used during the event.
“And now, we are doing a lot of mesh reuse as different accents,” Cowley said. “When you look at PUP as an organization, what we really strive to do is start driving the question of how we recycle these industrial materials as cities age.”
Landfills in Indiana receive about 10 million tons of solid waste per year, a number that the Indiana Department of Environmental Management expects to grow. Landfill space is limited, and several landfills in the state are expected to fill to capacity within the next decade.
Reusing materials that would otherwise be thrown away could extend the life of landfills. It also reduces the need for production of new materials, which means a reduction in emissions associated with production.
The organization’s eco-practical stance attracted seamstress Amy Beemer, who says PUP is providing a unique service in the Midwest.
“I basically started researching places doing recycled materials. I was finding some on the east coast, on the west coast, some in Australia, and then there’s somebody here in Indianapolis,” said Beemer, who has worked at PUP for four years. “To have a company that’s interested in not only what their city’s about, but what their city is getting rid of that can be turned into something that people can enjoy and use and carry … that’s awesome.”
Cowley says PUP’s next project is a partnership with passenger railroad company Amtrak. The company provided PUP with dozens of leather seat covers it had replaced in its fleet. PUP artisans broke down the seat covers and designed a batch of leather backpacks, totes and toiletry bags. Cowley says people all over the country are buying the Amtrak bags. The money earned is being reinvested into the community.
“The money that we make in any of our projects gets reinvested into other reuse projects in our city. When we sold a bunch of bags of the RCA dome, we were able to create shade structures in parks out of those. When we saved the stadium seats from Bush stadium, we turned them into bus stops. So really being able to create a second story for this stuff is what we look to do,” Cowley said. “So, with Amtrak what we’re going to be doing is hire more makers more artisans. Hopefully training people to do this work as well. And we’re going to pay them equitably for their skills.”