“Upcycling” has become a buzzword that doesn’t often live up to the level of creativity that the word implies. Just look at the thousands of list articles out there full of common objects with fairly obvious uses (I’m looking at you, buckets and mason jars!). In reality, there’s plenty of trickier trash out there that, with a little creativity, is capable of being turned into treasure.

Repurposing with a Purpose

Fabrik Bank repurposing center

What can you do with 13 acres of fiberglass roofing fabric? Or a bunch of uprooted parking meters? Or some old fire hoses? Indianapolis nonprofit People for Urban Progress (PUP) has a few ideas.

On the surface, PUP’s work is simple: they salvage materials from around Indianapolis and turn them into new products. But their motivations run deeper than the thrill of making something new out of something old. They aim to reduce waste in a way that can help change the way residents see their city. While they’ll find upcycling ideas for just about any material, they focus on salvaging items that tell a part of Indianapolis’ story. They then turn those items into a variety of fun and useful products, giving residents the chance to own a physical reminder of city pride.

It all started in 2008, when the city announced plans to demolish the inflatable dome of RCA/Hoosier Stadium. Co-Founder and Chief Innovator of PUP, Michael Bricker, was curious about what would happen to such an iconic feature of the Indianapolis skyline. When he found out it was destined for the landfill, he gathered a group of likeminded citizens and asked the city for the chance to repurpose the fabric. With the input of local designers, the fiberglass-coated roof fabric found new life as products like totes, purses, and wallets. It also became a shade structure that transformed a lot in the Highland Vicinity neighborhood into a pleasant community meeting spot.

PUP’s repurposing of the RCA Dome saved all but about 10% of the material from becoming trash. Meanwhile, sales of dome-material products were successful enough to allow PUP to continue their mission of using “goods for good.”

Move Over MacGuyver

Upcycled tote bags

After their resounding success repurposing the RCA Dome, many organizations are now asking PUP to repurpose materials they’re planning to get rid of. Vinyl banners from Super Bowl XLVI (which provide color for the products made from the all-white RCA Dome); seats from Bush Stadium (turned into colorful and cozy bus stops); downtown parking meters slated for digital replacements (upcycling ideas TBD!), were all acquired this way. PUP even managed to upcycle the entirety of Old City Hall into a temporary hub for interactive city planning.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t still go about turning trash into treasure the old fashioned way: dumpster diving for vinyl and fabric; cutting the seatbelts out of cars in the scrap yard; constantly on the lookout for demolitions and other events that could generate plenty of re-usable material.

In the process, PUP helps invigorate the local economy by providing opportunities and materials for Indianapolis makers of many stripes to showcase their talents. In fact, a favorite PUP project was a large-scale pop-up shop held in partnership with the United State of Indiana, a local business that sells Indy memorabilia. The event brought together every local maker PUP could find to show off their wares and share ideas. 

PUP’s latest idea for revolutionizing how Indianapolis does recycling is the Fabrik Bank. This space will provide storage for fabric and fabric-like materials that PUP salvages, provide workspace for the people breathing new life into that fabric, and even serves as a store where people can purchase as-is fabric at a reduced rate. And by partnering with Recycle Force to provide employment to the formerly-incarcerated, the Fabrik Bank will also further PUP’s commitment to strengthening community ties.

Upcycling Ideas for a Use-Less Future

Upcycling ideas on display

PUP’s members like to refer to themselves as a Do-Tank—a group that doesn’t just discuss solutions to problems but goes out and puts those solutions into practice in innovative ways.  Although they’ve accomplished plenty already, they’re not slowing down any time soon. In fact, they’re accelerating. Their big dream is to see PUP expand into other cities. As one step toward making that happen, they’ve got plans to hold a tradeshow in New York City to spread the word about what they’re doing.

PUP hopes that by making their repurposed products fixtures throughout the community—as shade structures, as bus stop seating, as the bags everyone is carrying—they can help make it just a little more second-nature for people to think about repurposing their own “junk” before throwing it away. They’re even hoping to inspire manufacturers to let the possibility for future upcycling inform how their products are manufactured in the first place.

From beautifying the city, to conserving landfill space, to building stronger interest in the work of local businesses and artisans, to changing our definition of junk, People for Urban Progress proves unconventional thinking combined with good old fashioned elbow grease can reinvent a city. We can’t wait to see what they repurpose next!

PUP logo

Budget Dumpster is your source for a low-priced dumpster rental in Indianapolis. This article is part of a series spotlighting organizations that make a difference in the communities we service. If you know of another great local organization, let us know in the comments!