This paper uses the ‘lens’ of integrated and sustainable waste management (ISWM) to analyse the new data set compiled on 20 cities in six continents for the UN-Habitat flagship publication Solid Waste Management in the World’s Cities. The comparative analysis looks first at waste generation rates and waste composition data. A process flow diagram is prepared for each city, as a powerful tool for representing the solid waste system as a whole in a comprehensive but concise way. Benchmark indicators are presented and compared for the three key physical components/drivers: public health and collection; environment and disposal; and resource recovery – and for three governance strategies required to deliver a well-functioning ISWM system: inclusivity; financial sustainability; and sound institutions and pro-active policies. Key insights include the variety and diversity of successful models – there is no ‘one size fits all’; the necessity of good, reliable data; the importance of focusing on governance as well as technology; and the need to build on the existing strengths of the city. An example of the latter is the critical role of the informal sector in the cities in many developing countries: it not only delivers recycling rates that are comparable with modern Western systems, but also saves the city authorities millions of dollars in avoided waste collection and disposal costs. This provides the opportunity for win–win solutions, so long as the related wider challenges can be addressed.