ISRI’s Commodity Roundtables Forum will take place Sept. 22-24 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Chicago. The annual event attracts processors, brokers, traders, and other recycling professionals from around the world. Register here.

The dot-com boom of the late 1990s catapulted Walter Alcorn into the technology industry and electronics recycling issues. Driven by new innovations, the industry can change in the blink of an eye—and that’s one of the things that continues to excite Alcorn about the electronics space. As vice president for environmental affairs and industry sustainability at the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), he is responsible for coordinating and advocating for policy and related issues for the association as they relate to consumer electronics.

With his knowledge and experience in the electronics industry, Alcorn often speaks at ISRI events. He will be the featured speaker on the electronics panel at ISRI’s Commodity Roundtables Forum in Chicago. Scrap News had the opportunity to speak with Alcorn about his interest in the electronics industry, how it’s changed since he entered the field, and what he hopes attendees take away from his session at the Commodity Roundtables Forum.

Tell us about your career path and how it led you to CTA.

My career path has covered both government and the private sector. I started working on environmental issues during my 20s. Through much of the 1990s, I worked on hazardous waste policy and [Environmental Protection Agency] regulatory implementation. Then I got involved in the dot-com boom, and that really got me into the tech industry and electronics recycling issues. My focus since then has been on electronics recycling from the manufacturer and retailer perspective.

I’m the vice president for environmental affairs and industry sustainability at CTA. I’ve had this job for 11 years and I’m responsible for coordinating and advocating for policy and related issues for the consumer technology association and that’s primarily regarding consumer electronics. 

What’s kept you interested in the electronics industry?

My primary interest has been the fast-changing nature of the industry. It’s an industry driven by innovation and it now includes some of the most successful and dynamic companies in the world. It’s a very exciting industry. 

How has electronics recycling changed since you entered the industry?

Electronics recycling has experienced tremendous growth over the last two decades. On the consumer side, it peaked in terms of material flows from the middle of the last decade to about 2015. But since then, volumes of the material have come way down and continue a steep downward trajectory that will likely continue for a few more years.

The products are lighter and there’s less material to recycle. One of the major changes has been video displays. Until 2004 or 2005, almost all televisions and monitors sold in the U.S. and globally were cathode-ray tube (CRT) technology. But between 2004 and 2007 that technology virtually disappeared from the market. First LCD (liquid crystal display) technology came to dominate the display market for TVs and monitors, and in the middle of the last decade LED (light-emitting diode) technology came to dominate, and it continues to evolve.

It’s interesting how the technology has resulted in better, lighter products, which in turn resulted in less material in need of recycling. That’s why you see these trends specific to video displays, but other products have also undergone real transformations—in some cases because functions that used to be performed by different products are now all performed by one product. Cameras, telephones, and many other features can all be done on your phone now. So, there’s less need for material to operate the products. Though it’s not always good for the recycling industry, it’s good for the environment, and one of the long-term results of the innovation in the technology industry over the years.

Technology tends to become lighter, smaller, and one product can do multiple functions. As recently as 20 years ago, if you got a new TV, it was heavy, and generally sat on your floor and didn’t move. Now very large TVs hang on the wall and provide better quality and more functions than the old heavy pieces of furniture. 

What are you excited about for the Commodity Roundtables Forum?

I always enjoy participating in ISRI events, I usually learn things when talking to ISRI members and participants in these events. Not only are the electronics and consumer-tech industries changing, so too is the recycling industry. It’s very helpful for me to understand what’s going on in the recycling industry as an allied industry for the technology industry.

I look forward to having some meaningful discussions about trends in both the technology industry and the recycling industry and seeing where there are areas for our industries to collaborate. 

What do you hope attendees take away from your panel?

On this panel I’ll be addressing recycling related issues in the electronics industry. I hope what attendees hear can help inform them for their businesses and with their business plans as they move forward. In any industry, many of the challenges we run into are the result of poor planning or sometimes making business decisions based on what you read in the paper. Hopefully attendees will get a better understanding of the issues and motivations of the tech industry as it relates to the electronics industry, recycling industry, and other activities.

Photo courtesy of Walter Alcorn.

Hannah Zuckerman

Hannah Zuckerman

Hannah is a Writer & Editor for ISRI's Scrap News. She's interested in a wide range of topics in the recycling industry and is always eager to learn more. She graduated from Bryn Mawr College, where she majored in History and a minored in Creative Writing. She lives in Arlington, Virginia with her husband.