Clay-polymer nanocomposites (CPNs) have been studied for two decades as sorbents for water pollutants, but their applicability remains limited. Our aim in this review is to present the latest progress in CPN research using a meta-analysis approach and identify key steps necessary to bridge the gap between basic research and CPN application. Based on results extracted from 99 research articles on CPNs and 8 review articles on other widely studies sorbents, CPNs had higher adsorption capacities for several inorganic and organic pollutant classes (including heavy metals, oxyanions, and dyes, n = 308 observations). We applied principal component analysis, analysis of variance, and multiple linear regressions to test how CPN and pollutant properties correlated with Langmuir adsorption model coefficients. While adsorption was, surprisingly, not influenced by mineral properties, it was influenced by CPN fabrication method, polymer functional groups, and pollutant properties. For example, among the pollutant classes, heavy metals had the highest adsorption capacity but the lowest adsorption affinity. On the other hand, dyes had high adsorption affinities, as reflected by the linear correlation between adsorption affinity and pollutant molecular weight. Scaling from 'basic research' to 'technological application' requires testing CPN performance in real water, application in columns, comparison to commercial sorbents, regeneration, and cost evaluation. However, our survey indicates that of the 158 observations, only 20 compared the CPN's performance to that of a commercial sorbent. We anticipate that this review will promote the design of smart and functional CPNs, which can then evolve into an effective water treatment technology. Copyright © 2020. Published by Elsevier Ltd.