The adsorption characteristics of Congo red (CR) dye on activated carbon produced under optimized conditions from tomato paste waste were evaluated. The effects of adsorbent dose, initial dye concentration, contact time, ionic strength and solution temperature on adsorption were investigated. Adsorption kinetic was better described by the pseudo-first order model. Results of the intra-particle diffusion model show that the pore diffusion is not the only rate-limiting step. Adsorption isotherm was well defined by the Langmuir isotherm. The maximum adsorption capacity of the activated carbon was 435 mg g−1 at 328 K. The dimensionless separation factor RL revealed the favorable nature of the isotherm of the activated carbon–dye system. Adsorption energy was found to be 4.20–4.55 kJ mol−1 indicating that the mechanism of adsorption is physical in nature. Thermodynamic studies showed that CR adsorption onto activated carbon was feasible, spontaneous and endothermic. Desorption of the used activated carbon was studied using ethanol as solvent and desorption efficiency of 56.4% was obtained after five cycles. The findings indicated that the activated carbon is a very effective and low-cost adsorbent for removal of CR dye from aqueous solutions.