Aluminum is a telling example of the impact of our resource over-consumption.
Bauxite, from which most aluminum is made, is the most abundant element in the earth's crust. Due to its availability and utility, aluminum is widely used for manufacturing all kinds of products. In fact, the world creates 2 million tons of aluminum every month.
Making aluminum from bauxite is very energy intensive and environmentally destructive. The ore is usually extracted by strip mining, and since it is found primarily in tropical countries, this mean the destruction of rainforest in places like Vietnam, Guinea and Brazil. Extracting and refining it requires 2 percent of the world's energy usage (more commercial energy than is used by the continent of Africa for all purposes). In many cases, large dams are built to generate the energy needed for aluminum production, including one in the Brazilian Amazon that flooded 900 square miles of rainforest. Thirty percent of aluminum production is fueled by coal-fired power plants—a leading source of greenhouse gases.
The world uses 250 billion cans every year. In the US, even though it saves 95% of the energy when a new can is made from recycled material, only about 54% of our aluminum cans are recycled—we throw away about 40 billion cans every year.
Energy use isn’t the only down-side of aluminum production. The process creates a toxic slurry of chemicals that must be dealt with, and making one can creates the equivalent of 300 cans full of CO2 (260 g.) or 18 tons of CO2 for every ton of aluminum manufactured.
Aluminum production is moving to the Middle East, because the countries there aren't involved in the Kyoto climate change process, and therefore aren’t worried about their CO2 output.
What to do?
Sources: Container-recycling.org, Confessions of an Eco-Sinner by Charles Pearce, US EPA