The adsorption mechanism of three reactive dyes by zeolite has been examined with the aim of identifying the ability of zeolite to remove textile dyes from aqueous solutions. Towards this aim, a series of batch adsorption experiments was carried out, along with determination of the electrokinetic properties of both natural and modified zeolites. The adsorbent in this study is a clinoptilolite from the Gordes region of Turkey. The reactive dyes CI Reactive Black S, Red 239 and Yellow 176 are typical azo dyes extensively used in textile dyeing. Adsorption tests were carried out as a function of mixing time, solids concentration, dye concentration and pH. The adsorption results indicate that the natural zeolite has a limited adsorption capacity for reactive dyes but is substantially improved upon modifying its surfaces with quaternary amines. An electrostatic adsorption mechanism involving the formation of a bilayer of amine molecules on the clinoptilolite surface onto which anionic dye molecules adsorb, depending on their polarities, is proposed. The results are also supported by electrokinetic measurements. The adsorption data were fitted to the Langmuir isotherm and it was found that the modified sepiolite yields adsorption capacities (q(e)) of 111, 89 and 61 mg g(-1) for Red, Yellow and Black, respectively. These results are comparable to a popular adsorbent, activated carbon. (C) 2003 Society of Chemical Industry.