Abstract The occupation of waste picker has taken on new importance as a livelihood, especially since the last global economic downturn. Increasingly, waste pickers are being recognized for their valuable contributions to urban sustainability and development. Drawing from scholarship on waste pickers, and findings from a recent study conducted in five cities across three continents, this paper discusses the environmental and economic contributions of informal waste pickers to cities. This paper argues for the re-conceptualization of solid waste management systems that integrate waste pickers as partners, as key to building just, inclusive and livable cities for all. It also presents a specific model in which informal waste workers are integrated as key stakeholders as one example of best practice in this area, thus contributing to current discussions on integrated and inclusive solid waste models.