Abstract: In the present technologically fast changing situation related to waste management practices, it is desirable that disposal of plant waste should be done in a scientific manner by keeping in view economic and pollution considerations. This is only possible when the plant waste has the potential to be used as raw material for some useful product. In the present study, groundnut shell, an agricultural waste, was used for the preparation of an adsorbent by chemical activation using ZnCl2 under optimized conditions and its comparative characterisation was conducted with commercially available powdered activated carbon (CPAC) for its physical, chemical and adsorption properties. The groundnut shell based powdered activated carbon (GSPAC) has a higher surface area, iodine and methylene blue number compared to CPAC. Both of the carbons were used for the removal of malachite green dye from aqueous solution and the effect of various operating variables, viz. adsorbent dose (0.1–1 g l−1), contact time (5–120 min) and adsorbate concentrations (100–200 mg l−1) on the removal of dye, has been studied. The experimental results indicate that at a dose of 0.5 g l−1 and initial concentration of 100 mg l−1, GSPAC showed 94.5% removal of the dye in 30 min equilibrium time, while CPAC removed 96% of the dye in 15 min. The experimental isotherm data were analyzed using the linearized forms of Freundlich, Langmuir and BET equations to determine maximum adsorptive capacities. The equilibrium data fit well to the Freundlich isotherm, although the BET isotherm also showed higher correlation for both of the carbons. The results of comparative adsorption capacity of both carbons indicate that groundnut shell can be used as a low-cost alternative to commercial powdered activated carbon in aqueous solution for dye removal.