People for Urban Progress (PUP) is recycling used leather seat covers from Amtrak's Acela trains and turning them into luxury leather goods. But first, the bonded leather has to be separated from foam cushions and cleaned. A worker is shown among the pieces. (From People for Urban Progress)

You, too, can now own a luxury backpack made from material that once graced a stranger’s backside — or maybe tens of thousands of backsides.

Just in time for the holiday season, a small nonprofit in Indianapolis is rolling out specially designed leather goods made from used seat covers from Amtrak’s Acela Express trains.

People for Urban Progress, or PUP — which got its start transforming a sports arena’s fabric dome into purses — plans to salvage the donated seat covers from about 100 Acela Express trains.

The designs are original. The bags are hand-assembled. The aim is to promote sustainability. The articles even look pretty good, to judge from pictures showing off their sleek Amtrak-blue leather.

But the hardest part was, as you might guess, cleaning the stuff. Andrea Cowley, PUP’s executive director, said “dirty” doesn’t even begin to describe the condition of the bonded leather pieces that arrived in their workshop. Most of them had been in service 10 years or more.

“So we had to find a way to clean them, to get rid all of the ice cream sandwiches and coffee and bubble gum,” she said in an interview. “I think the thing we’re struck by the most is the amount of gum. It’s so gross.”

The Acela seat covers aren’t easy to disassemble, either, Cowley said. They are made of durable bonded leather — which has a slightly plastic feel — that has to be separated from the foam cushions in bits and pieces. What’s left is cut into usable shapes and then stitched together by a small crew: four people cutting, and seven people stitching with machines.

But that all becomes a memory when PUP transforms the pieces of leather into shaving kits ($75), tote bags ($185) or backpacks ($385). Working in batches, the organization expects to crank out about 2,500 items, Crowley said.


A worker cuts leather fabric that has been "upcycled" from seat covers. The nonprofit PUP says turning the leather into consumer items also means diverting garbage from landfills. (From PUP)

PUP — led by co-founder Michael Bricker, who is an architect by training, and his twin sister, Jessica, who is a designer — strives to make well-designed goods with stuff that might otherwise have gone to a landfill. Its first big “upcycling” project involved making purses and other items from 13 acres of fiberglass that had covered the RCA Dome before the Indianapolis Colts’ former home was demolished. The first 1,000 pieces off the assembly line made $70,000, Huffington Post reported. The news site said half the proceeds covered the nonprofit’s costs and half went to community projects.

PUP did something similar with promotional banners and other materials from the long-running gamers convention Gen Con. When Bush Stadium was demolished, the nonprofit salvaged some of the baseball seats and transformed them into public seating at city bus stops.

The idea to recycle Amtrak seats came about as the nation’s beleaguered passenger railroad service began sprucing up the interiors of the trains on its Acela line, which offers high-speed service between Washington, D.C., and Boston. The next generation of Acela cars is expected to go into service in 2021.

PUP is hoping that the deal with Amtrak will raise its profile even higher, Cowley said. She said it’s already been astonishing how many people are connected to Amtrak as contractors or suppliers, or in other business capacities. And then there are the die-hard rail buffs, like her husband.

“He keeps saying how amazing this is,” she said.

--This posting has been updated to correct the names of Michael Bricker and Andrea Cowley.

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