In this study, yttrium doped zinc ferrite (ZnFe2−xYxO4x = 0.01–0.1) and yttrium and copper co-doped zinc ferrite (CuyZn1−yFe2−xYxO4x = 0.1 and y = 0.5) were synthesized by solution combustion method. The synthesized nanoparticles were authenticated by various techniques such as X-ray diffraction (XRD), Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR), scanning electron microscopy–energy dispersive X-ray analysis (SEM-EDAX) and UV–visible spectroscopy. The photocatalytic activity of synthesized nanoparticles was studied by performing the degradation of methylene blue (MB) under visible light. 95% of MB was degraded in 180 min using yttrium-doped zinc ferrite. 89% of MB was degraded in 30 min using copper and yttrium co-doped zinc ferrite under visible light using 10 mg of the catalyst and 50 µl of hydrogen peroxide. Photocatalytic degradation of colorless pollutant bisphenol A also carried out using the doped zinc ferrite. © 2019, Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature.