Teabags & Data-Disconnect 

Recently, whilst on a Christmas visit to relatives, I observed what was, for me, a novel practice.  Teabags, once leached of their flavour and colour in the brewing process, were then squeezed dry, set to one side, before being ripped apart and the dried leaves retained in a large jar.

It seemed a somewhat convoluted process, and completely new to me, so - not unnaturally - I asked what was going on.  Apparently, teabags are no longer biodegradable, so if you just dump them on your compost heap, they'll still be there in decades to come.  The meticulous separation process at least gives the spent tealeaves the opportunity of a new life as compost: the outer bag ends up in the main rubbish where presumably it contributes to our continuing landfill crisis.

Well, who'd have thought?  Why would teabags not be biodegradable?  I had always thought they were made of paper, and (judging by the frequency of accidental puncturing) would dissolve back into their component elements at the drop of a hat.  This revelation led me to conduct a little research of my own.

Apparently, the reason that the humble teabag is not biodegradable is because it includes ingredients that are not paper, in order to make it more resilient.  And what might those ingredients be?  One common example is epichlorohydrin, an ingredient used in epoxy resins, and one which hydrolyses to 3-MCPD when in contact with water.  3-MCPD has been shown to have cancer-inducing properties in animals, is spermatoxic and suppresses immune function.

Another common addition to teabag technology is 'food grade nylon' or polyethylene terephthalate (PET).  This is reckoned to be pretty safe and stable stuff, but the worrying thing is that its 'glass transition point' (the temperature at which polymers begin to break down) is 169 degrees Fahrenheit - whereas water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit.

So, here we have an insignificant item in your kitchen cupboard, designed to be dunked in boiling water, but which is rendered non-biodegradable by ingredients that cannot possibly do you any good when placed in hot water.  One response to that understanding might be the kind of laborious activity I observed in my relative's kitchen, but wouldn't a more rational response be to get rid of the teabags and do things the old fashioned way?  Why wouldn't the first understanding (the biodegradability issue) not lead, inexorably, to the second (I'm probably killing myself slowly with toxins)?  If the first set of facts (non-biodegradability) and the conclusions drawn from them lead to actions, why wouldn't that inevitably lead to the second set of facts, observations and actions? 

Either there's a strange kind of disconnect going on, or we (in this case, my relatives) are simply lazy, or too apathetic to follow the matter through to some kind of logical conclusion.  Well, welcome to the human condition: what goes for Teabag Recycling Procedures no doubt applies equally well to financial-planning.  As our clients' advisers, our role is to handle a not inconsiderable quantity of financial data, and make sense of it.  That involves the vital role of analysis, and a capacity for reflection.  Do we see clearly where the data leads us?  Do we, in fact, follow through with the logical implications of our own conclusions - or do we leave off, halfway through the job?  How does this affect our Annual Review Process?  We've reviewed some impressive client review documentation over the years which presents tons of potentially useful information, supported by reams of analysis, but in the end fails to make explicit the kinds of diagnostic conclusions which could be transformative to the client.  How does this impact upon your advice process when confronted with an insistent client, you know, the kind who has tunnel vision regarding one kind of transaction, to the detriment of everything else?

Do we want a financial advice process which may generate a satisfactory outcome in one area, but which leaves critical sources of financial toxicity untouched?  In 'Clarity', ValidPath have perhaps the best factfinding technology available in the UK, and with 'CashCalc' an extremely efficient way of processing that data into robust diagnostics that allow both adviser and client to attack the priorities thus identified.  As a whole new year of possibilities opens up before us, what are you doing to minimise the risks associated with data-disconnect?

Kevin Moss, 04/01/2016