Plastic waste is everywhere and it seems that Subs are too. There’s the headquarters in New Zealand, where brothers and company founders Andrew and Justin Lambie hail from, and Taiwan, where the flip-flops are manufactured and where the brothers now call home. Then there’s their retail outlets on New Zealand’s North and South Islands, in Western Australia, the Maldives, the United States, Taiwan and now Phuket.
And on top of that, they manage and sponsor clean-ups in each of these destinations and more, removing 154,339 kilograms – or 340,259 pounds – of waste from the ocean since their inception in 2016.
Having grown up in the coastal Pendarves area of Canterbury, New Zealand, the Lambie brothers’ childhoods are peppered with memories of littered shorelines and seabirds tangled in fishing nets. Similarly, when Justin moved to South Korea and then Taiwan to teach, he witnessed waste from China turn the adjacent seas into plastic soup. And so Subs was born from a fierce determination to turn the tide of plastic pollution by two men who’d seen too much.
Approximately 29 600ml plastic bottles go into each pair of Subs flip-flops, and even the cardboard box, shop hangers, tags and string are made of recycled material. But what exactly is the journey from junk to jandal? The plastic in Taiwan is taken to a recycling facility, cleaned, cut down, mixed with other plastics in the facility and made into pellets which are then moulded into flip-flops. And when customers have worn them to the ground, they can send them back to Subs who will cut them down into pellets and repeat the manufacturing process again.
All’s quiet in the Subs’ upcycling team though; they can count the amount of returns they’ve received on one hand. The footwear is so durable that it’s seen Andrew safely up and down a Taiwanese mountain and remained intact.
It’s at this juncture that we introduce Dan Evilsizer. Alongside possessing a fantastic surname fit for a comic book villain, Dan is also a diving instructor and former combat engineer for the US Marine Corps who brought Subs to Thailand late last year. (Plot twist, he is in fact the good guy in this story.) Dan re-established contact with Justin, an old friend he taught with in Busan, South Korea, after seeing the success of Subs and its potential in Phuket.
“As a diver, the Subs concept was really interesting to me. You don’t really know how bad it is until you get in the water and see the garbage everywhere,” Dan explains from a restaurant on Sunrise Rd, a stone’s throw from Chalong Pier. Never far from the water is Dan.
While the Subs Thailand wing finds its feet, the flip-flops are shipped in from Taiwan and Dan runs the company from his home in his spare time. Long term, however, he has plans to manufacture them in Phuket using plastic sourced from clean-ups on and around the island, and set up a search-and-rescue-style service for fishermen to report lost nets.
In line with the company’s clean-up commitment for each pair sold, Dan organises beach and ocean cleans in his free time, but he also sees each work dive as an opportunity to pick up plastic and encourages his students to do the same.
“You have surface plastic and plastic that sinks to the bottom, and then there’s plastic, like plastic bags, that floats in the middle. That’s what turtles and whale sharks end up eating. And you can see it clearly when diving.
“We see trash from other countries too. I’ve found bottles from the US, Singapore, Malaysia… Some have barnacles on, so they’ve been floating for a long, long time. We see a lot of fishing materials too. I find nets, bulbs, fishing gear…”
Asked what the challenges are in Phuket’s battle against plastic, without hesitation Dan cites styrofoam, which breaks down into tiny pieces, and other microplastics which are difficult to extract from the water. These fragments are often ingested by marine animals, and have even started to make their way into our food.
“Plastic waste on land is an issue too that’s not talked about as much,” Dan adds, “It’s got plenty of time to find its way to the sea through floods, strong winds, rivers…”
With an estimated eight million tonnes of plastic entering our ocean each year, joining the 150 million tonnes already there, the challenge of saving our seas can feel overwhelming. However, small lifestyle choices and changes can help us move past those feelings of eco-apathy and hopelessness. Subs gives us an important opportunity to help – two steps at a time.