Look on the side of a highway sometime and you might see them. Or along the railroad tracks or a stream. Maybe even between your toes at the beach. Tiny pearl-shaped pieces of plastic, known as pellets, are the building blocks for almost everything plastic, and they're everywhere.
They've spilled out of petrochemical plants, rail cars, shipping containers and trucks. Large spills have soiled beaches in Louisiana and South Carolina. New research suggests more than 230,000 tons of pellets enter the ocean each year, contaminating the water and sickening birds, fish and other wildlife.
The oil and plastic industry, which makes the pellets, says it has programs in place to prevent any spills. But NPR and PBS' Frontline found top officials have known about the problem for decades, even as they successfully fended off regulation that might have kept them in check.