Navigating a Period of Extraordinary Potential
In an interview with Light Metal Age, Aluminum Association President & CEO Chuck Johnson discussed opportunities, challenges and key trends for the aluminum industry. With permission, the interview has been published in full below.
The Aluminum Association welcomed Chuck Johnson as its new president and CEO at the beginning of this year. Having served at the Association before for 19 years, he has been welcomed back with open arms. At the helm of the leading voice in the aluminum industry, Johnson will work towards policies that support a thriving domestic industry and plans to help move the industry forward. Although challenges will always continue, he sees this time as having enormous opportunities for aluminum producers and suppliers.
What is your history in the aluminum industry and with the Aluminum Association? How will that history support your current role as president and CEO of the Association?
I started my career at the Aluminum Association in the late 1990s with a focus on policy and environment, health, and safety. This portfolio expanded to include international affairs and, eventually, full industry strategy. The work from my early career I am particularly proud of includes developing the industry’s original sustainability programs and policies and advancing the North American industry agenda globally. I left aluminum in 2017 to join the International Safety Equipment Association as president and CEO. I think my early work in sustainability and my recent work leveraging a major demand shift will be of particular value at this moment in aluminum’s history.
Now that you've stepped into the role as president and CEO, what are your main goals for the Aluminum Association? What would you like to see the Association achieve?
There are plenty of tactical things I could point to, but at a high level I want to help the industry to navigate a period of extraordinary potential. I see five macro-trends driving durable U.S. aluminum demand in the coming years:
- Shifting consumer preferences, including the backlash against single-use plastic.
- A strong, bipartisan commitment to strong trade enforcement.
- An increased focus on sustainability.
- A pivot to a more electrified world.
- Historic investment in domestic infrastructure over the next decade.
What are the primary challenges facing the North American aluminum industry? How does the Association aim to support its members in addressing those challenges?
Navigating various global trade issues, including state-subsidized production in China, remains a key challenge and priority. But also helping to move the industry forward on sustainability, recycling and other issues so we are in position to take advantage of growth in the long-term. And, of course, just like all manufacturers we are acutely aware of lingering COVID challenges and attendant supply chain, inflation and related issues.
The U.S. government is working on a massive infrastructure plan. How would this benefit the aluminum industry?
The short answer is yes. The bipartisan infrastructure bill will fundamentally reshape demand for aluminum in the built environment for years to come. This single piece of legislation provides a level of business and demand certainty for our industry over a long time-horizon – around a decade. So, we are looking at a really rare opportunity with this infrastructure investment. When the details were released, we were glad to see that the legislation included several of our top infrastructure priorities like electric grid modernization, recycling infrastructure and others. We see this as a durable demand well for domestic aluminum long into the future.
How does the Aluminum Association support the industry in neutralizing carbon emissions and/or greenhouse gas emissions?
Much of our work is in developing the baseline, industrywide data that helps us to tell the aluminum industry’s story on carbon reduction. For example, in January we released new life cycle assessment data showing that the energy needed to produce a pound of aluminum in North America has dropped by around half over the last 30 years. And then we help to tell that story through efforts like our Choose Aluminum advocacy campaign (Your readers can learn more about that at www.ChooseAluminum.org). Emissions reductions happen two ways: at the company level when we improve our production processes, and at the product level, when aluminum is used to improve the impacts of a product or it’s use. So, for example, a car or truck that reduces weight using aluminum can improve fuel economy and improve its total carbon footprint. We help our members strategically on the actual improvements and tactically by documenting and communicating these improvements.
The Association through their ATG just released an Automotive Aluminum Roadmap. What are the ways the Association will support aluminum suppliers to automakers to help drive the use of aluminum for ICE and electric vehicles?
The automotive industry remains our single largest market, and it’s a main driver of the more than $4 billion the industry has invested in the U.S. in the last decade. Research show that aluminum’s growth trajectory in auto remains solid and is the single fastest growing material in the auto market today. Our new Automotive Aluminum Roadmap, which was more than a year in the making in collaboration with a variety of automotive stakeholders both inside and outside the aluminum industry, identifies five key technology pathways for innovation. This will be our guiding framework for action over the next decade in the areas of Design Engineering, New Alloys and Products, Future Vehicles, Next-Generation Fabrication Technologies, and Recycling and Sustainability. I encourage your readers to check it out at www.DriveAluminum.org.
What is the Association doing to support nationwide can deposit programs?
It’s very clear that well-designed container deposit programs are the single most effective policy to bring back more, high quality aluminum scrap into the recycling system. Research from Circular Matters has documented that, while the deposit states consume about a quarter of all beverage cans, they generate more than a third of all cans recycled. And the recycling rates in deposit states are nearly twice those in non-deposit states. Late last year, the Aluminum Association signed onto an effort with the Can Manufacturers Institute (CMI) to grow the consumer recycling rate for aluminum beverage cans from 45% today to 70% by 2030. It’s an ambitious target and in our view, the best way to make progress toward it is to push for new, consumer-friendly deposit programs in key targeted states. So, that’s what we are doing with our partners at CMI.