Advocates For Innovation with Walter Alcorn

December 10, 2020

Walter Alcorn is Vice President for Environmental Affairs and Industry Sustainability at the Consumer Technology Association (CTA). Walter manages legislative initiatives impacting consumer electronic product recycling, design, and repair for CTA. Prior to CTA Walter co-founded the National Center for Electronics Recycling and was a nationally recognized consultant for public and private sector clients supporting development of state and corporate electronics recycling systems. Outside of CTA he is also very active in his community and was also elected 2019 to the Fairfax County, Virginia Board of Supervisors.

John Shegerian: This edition of the Impact podcast is brought to you by Trajectory Energy Partners. Trajectory Energy Partners brings together land owners, electricity users, and communities to develop solar energy projects with strong local support. For more information on how trajectory is living the solar revolution, please visit trajectoryenergy.com.

John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact podcast. I am John Shegerian, and I am so honored to have my good friend with us today, his Walter Alcorn, he is the VP of Environmental Affairs and Industry Sustainability at the Consumer Technology Association. Welcome to the Impact, Walter.

Walter Alcorn: Thank you, John. Thank you for having me on today.

John: Yes, and this is a special edition. I am in Fresno today and you are in the Washington DC area and this is still the Covid-19 pandemic era broadcast, but it is just really great. Even though we are not together in person, like we have been so many times over the years. It is great to be together over Skype and over technology and able to share some time together and I am really honored that you are here today because you have such a great story to tell on all the important work you are doing it the Consumer Technology Association, but before we get to that, please share with our listeners who have not met you yet before. A little bit about the backstory of Walter Alcorn, how you even got here and how you got into this position and why you wanted to do the work that you do today?

Walter: Wow. Well, thank you John. I appreciate that. Boy, that is a great question to get us started. When I was first getting out of college, I went into local government. I went to work for Fairfax County and I have kind of a generalist position. Back then, I guess, I realized that I really needed to learn something really well. In order for me to have a career and figure out what I was going to do when I grew up, I needed to really learn something well. So a few years out of college, I went to work at SAIC which has grown a lot since then, but it does a lot of government contracting, at the time was doing an awful lot of work for the United States Environmental Protection Agency. So I work at SAIC and did all sorts of contracting work regulatory support on hazardous and solid waste contracts. For those of us in the business, rick rop. Really did a lot to learn about how the regulatory structure works, how it is implemented and also as new regulations were developed and there were a lot of them going on back in the 90s, learned a lot about the system. So out of that, I really branched out into a couple of different areas. I did my dot com thing at the time. I had my brush with that and ended up focusing on electronics recycling. That is an area where I started working way back in the day, this was 2000, 2001. I was working on a couple of government grant projects where gave me the opportunity to work with folks in the manufacturing industry on electronics recycling questions. So that was my foot in the door. At the time, I was really getting up to speed. I have maybe a couple of years of experience in doing consulting work relating to electronics recycling but this was the great opportunity that presented itself and I jumped on it. Really ever since then, I worked very closely, it is funny John, you are going to laugh but some of them are the same people.

Twenty years later, I mean, some of the same personalities that you and I both know.

John: Right.

Walter: Are still there and good people too, good people to work with. Through all that time, I really had to learn my stuff and prove my value and I did consulting work on various electronics recycling issues back then. One of my clients that I picked up– and I did both work for the private sector and public sector at the time. One of my clients was a trade association called the Consumer Electronics Association. They were a great client, Parker Brube at the time was my contact there and in 2010, actually 2009, Parker moved along, went and took a job at Best Buy. His old job opened up and I applied and was fortunate enough to get that job in 2010 and been there ever since. So 10 years at CTA still working on, many of the same issues we have certainly seen an evolution in terms of how the manufacturing industry plays and how the manufacturing industries involved in the recycling of electronics. It is funny that some of the people are still the same folks and that is great. I love that part of it. It is wonderful to be able to really get to know folks and really understand what it is they need and how you can work with them and get the most out of these systems.

John: I agree with you and makes the journey that much more enjoyable because of the consistency of relationships that so many of us have had together during this journey and that is why I wanted you on today’s show because I know that since you took Parker’s job, what a brilliant leadership job you have done with your clarity of purpose at the CTA and made such a big impact, not only in the electronics recycling industry just in terms of the environment as a whole in sustainability as a whole. For that I am grateful and that is why I wanted you on today with us because I want our listeners to hear about that. So Walter, you are just one of those special people. Before we get going though, can you give a little bit about– now, you give a little bit of background about yourself. Can you share a little bit about background about the CTA itself and for our listeners just to hear about the evolution, where it started and where it is today as the Consumer Technologies Association.

Walter: Well, thank you for asking that. Obviously, there was a name change a few years ago.

John: Right.

Walter: As I mentioned Consumer Electronics Association is the old name. They were actually earlier iterations of the organization before then, but I cannot talk about GTA without talking about CES. We are probably best known as an organization as the producer of CES. Some people still remember that as the Consumer Electronic Show. It is the event in every January that is the primary meeting place for people in the technology business. It is a giant trade show. With Covid, we are looking to try something completely different this year. We are going to have CES 2021 be wholly online and that is a new step for us. John, I know you have been through a lot of CES over the years. It really is, you know, you cannot talk about GTA without really talking just a little bit about CES. It is such a wonderful gathering place, a place for technology innovators to come and show off their new stuff, to try new things, to have those conversations, to look, to see how the industry could be moved forward, and how consumer devices in particular can be more useful and more helpful to folks in society.

Now, CES has grown a lot more beyond just the devices that you and I talked about a lot. We have seen a tremendous, tremendous diffusion of consumer technologies into other industries. So for example now at CES, if you come to CES, you will see quite a few automobile manufacturers. You will see companies that do 3D printing. You will see drone companies. You will see all these different I would say industry sub-segments that take advantage of the technology and are putting them to use in some very interesting ways. So that spark of innovation, that spark of entrepreneurism is inherent in the DNA of CTA and it is one of the main reasons I am still there. It is a wonderful place to work.

John: It is so funny you said that, because Walter, I go to a lot of conferences every year and every time I come to your great conference, I just have such pride that we are still in so many ways the innovation nation. The fact that we get to host that event you guys to get put that on in Las Vegas, it is literally the most fascinating event of the year for me to go to and just the people you get to meet in one place and the new technologies that you get to see and where the world is going to be going directionally on the technological basis is just, it could not be more enjoyable. I think you guys do a great job and that is going to be a challenge, but I am sure you guys are going to pull it off and do an amazing job. To do a virtual CES this year, I think it is going to be probably just as wonderful as it in person in many ways.

Walter: Well, we certainly hope so. We just announced recently a partnership with Microsoft, whose going to be helping us do virtual CES 2021 and we are very excited about it, it does give us an opportunity to do some new things, to look at how we have done CES over the years in new ways, and provide some opportunities and I think we if we do this right then perhaps we are going to reach an even more broad, a broader audience than we have even with the tremendous success we have seen with CES over the years in Vegas.

John: For our listeners out there to find, Walter and his colleagues are all the great work that he does at the CTA with his colleagues, you could go to www.cta.tech. It is a great website, I am on it right now. There are tons of resources there, you could join the CTA on the website and there are lots of other information that is necessary to learn more about all the great work and impactful work the CTS does on a regular basis. Walter, we are having this discussion today during the– hopefully, the final stages or late-innings, just like say since this world series time of this pandemic hopefully science is going to win, God willing, and his going to– and we are going to get back to some sort of new better next year. Talk a little bit about though, beside going virtual for CES which is fascinating unto itself. How do pandemic has affected your work, your colleagues work in the companies that you work with?

Walter: Yes, it is a great question. In a lot of ways there are so many of us that work in these industries that have had to relearn the way that we do business and it is a blessing in many ways that many of us can do remote work. We can actually work from home or at least do a lot of what we used to do in an office at home. It does contrast itself with so many folks out there, so many essential workers, so many folks that work in the hospitality industry that do not have that luxury. What it is really done in a lot of ways is underscore how important this consumer technology is to not only the functioning of the economy in normal times. In times like the pandemic, it really, really has been a blessing for so many people and now we are seeing in many parts of the United States and globally but especially in the US, these technologies being used for education. We have got a lot of folks that are not able to get their kids into school physically and are having to rely on laptops and modems. Well, modems did not anymore.

John: Right.

Walter: To rely on this technology to get the basics of education and get the most out of that, so I think what it is in many ways its highlighted how important it is for us to have this technology infrastructure available. Not only to those that can– that had the blessings that many of those do that have done well, but really for all of us in the country.

John: That is a great point.

Walter: It is so important right now to have that distribution in a way and that access to technology because it is become even more important during Covid time.

John: So technology as you are saying becomes the great democratizer when it comes to making sure everyone gets an equal chance to get educated in this country.

Walter: Ideally, that is exactly right. I would say we are not living up to that ideal right now, but hopefully we are moving in the right direction. I think with Covid it is gone to underscore how important it is for this technology to be accessible. Now the great news on that is as you know, the technology we have this crazy thing in the technology world called Moore’s Law and not only the tremendous increases in that chip technology, but we also have innovation and improvements in technology where we see tremendous decreases in the cost the technology. So we really on the right path to get the technology into the hands of just about everybody and I think we have seen that during recent years with smartphones. We pretty much have gone from a time when having a mobile phone was something that the one percent maybe did, maybe the heavy break. It is also a way that you could work your muscle on. The one were more than ninety-six percent of the population has and uses those. So fantastic improvements and accessibility and I think there are some lessons there that I hope that we can use going forward and particularly as this technology becomes so critical for certain for just performing critical functions in a time of the pandemic.

John: It is a great point. I did not think of even that part of it, but that is such a critical element. With regards to all the major electronic manufacturers, you and I both count as you said over many years now almost two decades, many of these people as are good friends and their colleagues of ours and so many of them are visionaries on their own. Earlier this week I got to interview one of our colleagues and a great guy, Jonathan King, leader over a TCL. Can you share your vision, your take on the manufacturers and their environmental commitments during the recent years and where do you see that evolving in the years ahead, Walter?

Walter: That is really what gets me excited about my work at CTA. It really is. It is such a fascinating thing and I have learned a lot in these 10 years when I– as I have worked for the association. I work with folks like Jonathan that you mentioned and many others. There is an interesting confluence of things going on right now, not only in the industry but more broadly in terms of increase environmental awareness. I think one of the things that is driving at is certainly concerned about climate change. That is become very high in the consciousness of society and not only government policies but also, in terms of private action and private decisions, private sector decisions, and that really has driven many of these discussions from what I would call more of the compliance activities into the board rooms, into the C-suites, and what that has done is, it is really brought a whole new dynamic to many of these environmental commitments that companies have taken. It is fascinating to me to watch really the variety of commitments that different companies have made not just on climate and reducing emissions, but also on solid waste reduction.

John: Right.

Walter: Recycling and closing the loop.

John: Right.

Walter: To get the materials back and use them a new product, and water conservation, energy conservation, there are a whole string of things that major brands and companies, electronics and technology industry have come out and committed to. Some of these are being driven by customer demands. There is no doubt about that. It is a little different, John, on the consumer side because on the consumer side it is such a different market place. It is not as easy to pick out one thing and say, “Oh, that is driving sales on the environmental side.

John: Right.

Walter: That is been kind of a holy grail that certainly I have worked towards that and looked for that as many, many others have over the years. How can the sort of latent demand amongst consumers drive better environmental performance? It is there but it is still, I do not think companies have fully– at least in the technology industry, have fully captured that and had that drive to these commitments. It is something else, John, that is going on, that I do not think it is gotten a lot of discussion but one of the things that I began to see a few years ago as I saw companies making these some of these extraordinary environmental commitments particularly around carbon neutrality and energy efficiency. It seems to be now a competitive issue for the recruitment and the maintenance of talent. So what used to be an external issue, it used to be an issue for public discussion, used to be an issue perhaps for customers who are interested in environmental performance is now and many cases being driven by the employees of these companies.

It is fascinating it to me as we have seen the competition hit up for the extraordinary engineers, that the computer engineers, the scientists, the brilliant folks who do marketing and advertising, a lot of these professionals are in significant demand, but they also care about the environment. With a number of these companies have figured out is if we actually make these commitments, it makes our employees both current and prospective employees feel good about where they work. As you know, John, you and I have been doing these things for a long time.

John: Right.

Walter: There is really nothing more important about having people work in an organization that they feel good about and they have confidence and they can be proud of. It really to me has become and this has not really been discussed the whole lot, I have not really seen anybody do any studies on this, but a driver, unspoken driver almost is how this plays into a talent issues.

John: I really think you are right. I really think that is a great point that I was not even considering but it makes a lot of sense. Walter, I am feeling more hopeful than ever before, do you feel the same hope? I mean, when I see last fall, what Jane Fonda every Friday in DC holding her march and she is such an icon over the decades of our life and still out there doing it and rallying the troops to get involved and do more. Then you have, on the other side of the spectrum, a young brilliant lady on another part of the world, Greta Thunberg. It seems like sustainability and circular economy as you point out in closing the loop, is coming to America to stay now, whereas you and I have seen it the wax and wane a little bit, pre inconvenient truth, posting convenient truth. In Europe we know they got it long ago and it is been decades in their culture 50, 60, 70 years because of the size and geography of their countries same and South Korea, same in Japan, but it seems like it is taking hold here now and this time it is for real. Is that the same sense you get to with all the great manufacturers you get to work with?

Walter: It is. It certainly is. It is coming from a lot of different places. You know, I talked about coming from the employee.

John: Yes.

Walter: It is coming from the larger market and it really is the establishment in my mind that it is what I am saying is the expectations have changed. That companies, the expectations are that companies will perform environmentally responsibly. The really exciting thing that we are seeing in the tech industry in particular is it aligns with business models that are based on constant innovation and technology improvements. So we have seen, and John, I know you are very aware of this, but we have seen a lot of the older technologies fade away and no longer be hot in the market that had much bigger environmental impacts. I am thinking it is something that you and I know very well, those old cathode ray tubes.

John: Right.

Walter: The big old heavy tube TVs and monitors, remember those.

John: Yes.

Walter: We know those well, right?

John: Oh, boy, too well.

Walter: Right.

John: Right.

Walter: We have seen much more efficient technologies on the consumer electronic side emerge and go into practice. As those technologies evolved and come online, there is a real awareness and expectation that they will be not only better in terms of providing a better display and using less electricity, but on other environmental attributes that they will be superior. That is just built into the expectations of the industry because if it is not, then guess what, everybody knows it is going to be a problem and people are going to hear about it. The employees are not going to like it and the customers are not going to like it. So that new expectation, John, I think will provide some more permanence in the United States to these environmental things that as you say have kind of waxed and waned over the years here.

John: Walter, you shared a lot with us today, I want to give you the last word. Is there any last things you want to say or any plugs you want to give on your great organization the CTA before we sign off for today, but we are going to have you back after the virtual CES conference and talk about all the wins that happened there, but any final thoughts today before we have to say goodbye.

Walter: Well, the only thing is, you mentioned it is a World Series time when we are taping this.

John: Yes, talk about it.

Walter: I got to say my Washington Nationals did not make it to the playoffs this year even with the expanded format, but I have to say, I am in a group with a season ticket holders have been going there since they came to the area in 2005 and the—John, I had one of the most fun experiences of my life. Game 7 of the World Series last year 2019, my wife and I decided at eleven-thirty PM, the night before game 7 as the nationals were winning game six to use some frequent flyer miles and take care– you take advantage of StubHub and went to Houston and met a couple of friends there and it just, it was a magical moment. As a long time baseball fan, John, you just do not– again, I feel so blessed to be able to have experienced that and it just, it is a special moment and it is something that I know other baseball fans maybe once in a lifetime get that chance and I hope others can do that as well.

John: Well, I am going to give you my once in a lifetime magical moment in during the World Series. I am so [inaudible]. I am so old that I was at Shea Stadium, the night that Mookie Wilson hit the ball between Buckner’s legs in the World Series. It is 86, I am going to tell you, how bad where I was.

Walter: Yes. I remember where I was. I am watching it live. Yes.

John: Okay, so it was the game we…

Walter: I see it on TV.

John: It was right. The game was so far gone that when you tell that to people who are baseball fans like you and I, and they are actually a Red Sox fan or a Mets fan, they will say, “Oh, I was there too.” I say, “Really? You were there, huh.” Do you still you remember what was on the billboard on the scoreboard what the Mets posted on the scoreboard before Mookie came up to bat and they go, “No. What was on the scoreboard?” “Here is how far gone it was. On Shea Stadium scoreboard, they posted, Congratulations 1986 World Champion, Boston Red Sox.”

Then multi hit the ball and history changed. I know what magical moments are as well and I am a long suffering Mets fan. I get to live it through people like you, who just had it a year ago and I am back in 86 and I, we cannot even change owners with a good transition in New York. We have so many problems, so for there with the Mets.

Walter: Pay should. Pay should, you know. Well, goes around, and comes around in baseball.

John: Oh, my gosh. I mean, I am such a long suffering fan, but I love the world sees. I love and that is another great. We talked about the democratizer of education being technology in this country and it is. Besides democratizer so much other information flow, but it is also great. With all the problems that we have, Walter, it is just to have friends like you a, and be able to connect with them over a Skype or phone today, I feel more normal. After having this conversation, I feel like we are getting back to our selves again, the more I connect with all my good friends, number one, and number two, to be able to share sports. Sport is another one of the things that makes this one of the greatest countries on the planet even among all of our problems which are well-known. This is still one of the greatest places on Earth and to be able to talk about the Nationals or the Mets and share our joys and our disappointments is always just as a great thing just as fellow Americans.

Walter: I could not agree more, John. I could not agree more. Hey, next year, let us imagine the…

John: Next year that is the fun part about sports.

Walter: NLCES, okay, let us see those.

John: Okay, that would be great. Hey, for our listeners out there, again, this is just been a joy for me to have Walter Alcorn on. He is the Vice President of Environmental Affairs ad Industry Sustainability at the CTA. You can find Walter, all his colleagues, and all the important and great work they are doing, and the impacts are making at www.cta.techwalter, your gem of a human being, I wish we had more of you in this world. You constantly make an impact on the environment and you make the world a better place. Thank you for joining us today on the Impact podcast.

Walter: Thank you, John. I really appreciate it. Look forward to talking with you again.