In this work, hybridization of nonmetal nitrogen-doped carbon dots (NCQDs) with ZnO nanorods (NRs) is utilized towards better photocatalytic degradation of rhodamine B under ultraviolet (UV) irradiation. The structural characterization is confirmed by XRD, XPS, FTIR and HRTEM measurements, while, optical properties have been investigated using UV–visible absorbance spectroscopy and photoluminescence study. The dye degradation using ZnO NR is recorded as ~69%, while the performance of ZnO/NCQD climbs up to ~90%, after nine minutes of UV irradiation. Furthermore, the reusability test suggests better stability of ZnO/NCQD than bare ZnO under photocorrosion. The cyclic voltammetry study confirms that the photoinduced electron-hole pairs originate from the heterojunction established between the interfaces of NCQD and ZnO. An insight on the photocatalytic excellence of ZnO/NCQD system is drawn from the density functional theory study. This indicates that appropriate band alignment of the heterostructure constituents is the key factor in this experimental attempt towards environment remedy. © 2021 Elsevier B.V.